Mark Laity, NATO: Strong Stories Have Most Influence

Thu, Mar 29 2018

Mark Laity proudly pointed to his Omega Speedmaster at the PRIA ACT event in Canberra last week. It is identical to the ‘Moonwatch’ worn by Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 Mission and is a constant reminder for Mark of the youthful excitement he felt in watching the Moon landing 48 years ago. The Moonwatch is part of the narrative of his life.

When Mark grew up, he chose to become a journalist. By 1989 he was the BBC’s Defence Correspondent, a position he held for more than a decade. He then moved out of journalism, taking on a number of strategic communication roles with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He is currently Director of the new Communications Division at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, SHAPE — NATO’s HQ for Allied Command Operations.

Mark spoke over lunch to about 30 Communication and PR professionals on his experience communicating for NATO.  A high-pitched F/A-18A/B Hornet flypast — in support of the RAF 100th and RAAF 97th birthday — made a fitting accompaniment to the introductory remarks from Ron Forrester, PRIA ACT President.

Mark believes that technology has changed people; that deferential societies have gone. This has changed the role of those in strategic communications from being providers to market brokers. In his view, the way the world now works is very much through influencing.

Facing increasing complexity in its field of operations, NATO moved from a ‘Public Affairs on steroids’ model, towards doing integrated communications properly.  But turf fights cruelled their first attempt at change.

In Mark’s view, basic change is always hard. Those who fight hardest are those who benefit from things not changing. Those who might benefit most don’t fight as hard because they’re not certain on how the change will benefit them.

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 was a strategic shock for NATO. They had been living in a bubble, thinking that they could work with Russia. However, the Russians used information as a primary line of effort — ‘an information smokescreen’ to confuse NATO and get into the information cycle.

Mark’s assessment of Russia’s communication success in the Ukraine crisis was that they integrated information properly into all that they did.  ‘Information confrontation’ is now what war is. It is an approach involving subversion and economic sabotage. Information dominance is central to successful campaigns.

The Russian propaganda station RT — a 24/7 English-language news channel — used a well-grown set of narratives to disrupt NATO communication efforts. They drew on society’s distrust of government which began with the weapons of mass destruction fiasco — when people were lied to— and deepened in the 2007–08 financial crisis — when the ‘rich bastards’ responsible for the crash got away with it.

Mark believes that the Russians (and the Chinese) understand Zeitgeist. They don’t need a positive narrative. Their intent is to keep others on the back foot and slow decision-making down.  Social media — which Mark described as a ‘self-licking lollipop’ — is given a lot of focus as it plays into people’s lack of trust in government.

NATO has since evolved its strategic communications by using social media narratives, and by taking strategic communications seriously. They spent two and a half years of writing and agreement to get the NATO Strategic Communications Policy right.

Mark earnestly contends that people are storytelling machines, a skill developed over millennia. In his words, anyone who is a good communicator is a good storyteller.

In today’s strategic communications environment story needs to fit strategy. Ultimately what will insulate your people from the Russian approach — of ‘spraying shit against the wall and seeing what sticks’ — is a strong story.

Mark observed that NATO has worked hard to understand its own people and got its strategy, and narrative right. Positive results followed.

Mark Laity’s ‘Communicating for NATO — Lesson from the Field’ marked an outstanding start to PRIA ACT’s 2018 events program. 

For those interested in finding out what else PRIA ACT has planned for 2018 — feel free to reach out to Ron Forrester (President) or Frank Exon (Vice President) on LinkedIn — and keep an eye on the PRIA ACT Events Page.

Written by PRIA ACT Vice-President, Frank Exon.