Military success and survival depends, in part, on clear, concise and effective communications (COMM) practices. Armed actions around the world often head up news reports, but their operational culture, particularly their communications practices, are seldom shared with the public.
Last month I had the opportunity to be a civilian participant in a Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) course at the Peace Support Training Center (PSTC) in Canada’s military capital, Kingston Ontario. During the exercises I was stunned to learn the standards at which communications is practiced and exchanged among military personnel, especially when transferred in the form of training feedback from higher ranks to subordinates.
Recognizing how civilian organizations and corporate brands can learn helpful COMM tips from military communications practices, I enlisted the help of CIMIC Instructor Captain Pascal Dussault and his colleagues at the PSTC, including a Nepalese Colonel, to discuss 3 cardinals of communications: objectives, training and barriers.
Military COMMs begin with objectives: first defining and then communicating them, effectively. According to Capt Dussault and colleagues, COMM objectives should center on: clear and concise verbal and written communications; transmitting the correct message to the target audience in a timely manner; and, always confirming the audience’s correct understanding of the message.
The objectives refer to both internal and external communication.
Although intrinsic to goal-oriented communications, the last objective is often ignored in “civilian” practice. Much of today’s COMMs is unilateral, especially in colossal corporate and government advertising and contrary to its engaging nature, in online media. Just the same, civilian organizations can take a page from military COMMs to systematically ensure that key messages are understood rather than conveyed, and by extension, that engagement is enforced, rather than assumed.
All military personnel receive required training to enable the transmission of clear and concise messages to target audiences. It includes: electronic and radio communications; written and verbal interpersonal communications between people, units and countries; and, internal communications, including briefing skills. Likewise, by prioritizing COMM coaching in military fashion, public bodies and executive offices can strengthen and promote the organization’s vision, key activities and policy milestones, all the while ensuring that their stakeholders correctly interpret messages.
Another point on training: it is standardized. All personnel receive the same training, which ensures the regularization of COMMs. While standardization may decrease “creative” teaching or avoid certain platforms altogether (such as online media), this approach increases the likelihood of achieving objectives, many of which can come down to life or death. “In the military, communication is more important because it is linked with the decision-making and planning processes, which are directly related to people’s lives and property,” says Capt Dussault.
Listening may be the most valuable COMM skill in military culture, and contrarily, the one most absent in civilian communications. The military hierarchy commands close to flawless listening capabilities. Soldiers and officers must take and execute orders; receive, gather, interpret and analyze information; and make life or death decisions.
This expectation to interpret COMMs correctly and take required action is somewhat comparable to corporate culture, mainly due to high financial risk and competition. However, it is less so expected in bureaucratic and administrative environments where consequences for misinterpreted COMMs are at most, lenient.
In spite of the well-oiled military structure sprucing up soldiers with listening and integral COMMs skills, barriers to daily communications still exist. According to Capt Dussault and colleagues, they include language, where English isn’t the mother tongue or in environments where multiple languages are spoken. Another challenge is dealing with different levels of understanding of subject matter due to knowledge and experience, including a military lexicon that others may not understand. And there is also the fear of public speaking.
COMMs hurdles are especially pandemic to large, public, and international organizations that can benefit from isolating communications roadblocks, and weaving best practices into COMMs training. Doing so would create a palpable possibility to strengthen the organizational vision, and clarify key messages and activities communicated to target audiences.
Mina Jasarevic served as a Reporting/Public Information Officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yemen. She is now a policy analyst in Ottawa, Canada.