Drapeau: Public affairs efforts can borrow from nimble jazz music

There is no shortage of metaphors for today's rapidly changing new media environment, but I recently heard a very surprising one, combining the military hierarchy with jazz music. 

I recently participated in the Army’s Worldwide Public Affairs Symposium, in which the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, spoke to the hundreds of assembled public affairs staff about his take on their mission.

Casey described diplomacy, and, ultimately, communications, as being somewhat like jazz – an improvisation on a theme. My understanding is that he borrowed the notion from Ambassador Richard Holbrooke when they worked together in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. In jazz, the musicians try to be nimble, anticipate changes and adapt while playing — all while keeping the general tune of a given song. They experiment. Sometimes, they even make a mistake.

It seems that coordination of a public affairs effort within the government is similar. An office has a strategic theme, high priority messages that must get out. That's the tune. However, the tactics of getting that message out vary widely depending on whether you're writing a formal press release, speaking on the radio, writing a blog article or sending a short message on Twitter. That's where the improvisation and experimentation comes in.

And here is where some confusion takes place. It can be difficult to keep the same theme or brand identity across so many different and evolving media. To use myself as an example, I write formal papers and books, blog for different publications, and use new technologies such as Twitter. Long ago, I chose a Twitter nickname of “Cheeky Geeky” that summarizes my personality fairly well. I try to keep that “brand” in mind and demonstrate those qualities whenever and wherever I write.

One lesson from the military that might help the civilian agencies of government is the notion of “commander’s intent.” That is, what is the goal of my most senior supervisor? In the Army, a general might say that the strategic goal is to free the people of a country. Lower down the hierarchy, a lieutenant colonel might say the goal is to free the people in one specific town. Having this guidance, everyone else down the chain of command knows what is to be accomplished and thus can adapt tactically to a rapidly changing environment. And different units in different towns will adapt differently — improvising on a common theme.

Senior government leadership that allows employees to experiment with new media, encourages them to learn and share that knowledge, gives them permission to fail in small, low-risk ways and makes the commander’s intent clear can ultimately benefit organizations and improve delivery of information to relevant people through the many traditional and emerging media channels now available.

About the Author

Mark Drapeau is director of public-sector social engagement at Microsoft. 

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