Social Media and the Islamic State – Can Public Relations Succeed Where Conventional Diplomacy Failed?

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There comes a time when we need to analyse the impact and influence of Public Relations beyond the conventional practice of stakeholder engagement, crisis, media relations or lobbying.

We no longer live in a time when boundaries and rules are observed by the players around the table – on the contrary, there are no rules. Who yesterday was a foe, today is a friend and vice versa.  

Just like the 45th American President has forever changed the rules of diplomatic engagement and political credibility, so has the Islamic State (ISIS) changed the image of fundamentalist extremism: the battle ground for both these actors is no longer confined to the Situation Room or a derelict hut in the middle of the Iraqi desert, but online.

Governments and political figures are losing credibility and their voters’ respect, not just in the United States but across the modern world. A dangerous form of nationalism is slowly replacing one of the biggest failed experiments of the 20th and 21st centuries: globalisation.

Globalisation, for the most part, has had the opposite effect to that intended: there is very little to unite us and make us embrace our differences and, more than ever, there is a lot dividing us as societies.

We used to associate terrorism and extremism with rather well-defined geographical war zones, theatres of military engagement where both (or more) parties would deploy the best weapons and personnel they could to win “the war”.

ISIS taught us all a lesson: the wars waged online can be as dangerous and destructive as those on the ground. And we have someone to be “grateful” to for that: social media.

Young and old, men and women, children and teenagers, straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, black or white, rich and poor, governments and civil actors can all be found online; and the theatre of power of conventional diplomacy has slowly come to embrace the virtual space, although most diplomatic/government communications are still nothing more than “broadcast” systems.

ISIS took advantage of this vacuum of real, personalised, meaningful online engagement and filled a space where disenfranchised, castaway and lonely Muslims (primarily) could find understanding, love, respect and a “community”.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the “umma”, ISIS won and the international community lost. The former used the entire suite of Public Relations and Strategic Communication arsenal – the latter signed treaties and issued several “joint” statements.

ISIS spoke and touched the souls of those who wanted to “belong”; the diplomatic community sent more troops on the ground.

ISIS, sadly, proved to Islamic fundamentalist extremists that their “customer approach” works very well, with little “overheads”, a high engagement, no paid “media coverage” and many recruits willing to die in their name.

The wake-up call for the international community, social media platforms’ owners and nation states happened yesterday – and they are still, for most part, still sleeping.

I’ve researched the topic of online extremism and conventional diplomacy for over two years. The research has turned into a monograph (book written by one author) that will be published by Routledge on the 18th of September 2019.

These are some of the outlets where you can find my book: Routledge,  Amazon, Waterstones, The Telegraph, Hive, Thrift Books, Saxo (Sweden), Adlibris (Sweden), Bokus (Sweden), Mighty Ape (New Zealand).

This book will be of particular interest to scholars and researchers of defence and strategic studies, especially those working on ISIS propaganda, Middle East Studies, media studies, digital humanities, communication studies, public relations and international relations.

I shall always be grateful to David Landsman PhD OBE, a career diplomat and a former British Ambassador and, above all, the former head of the UK’s Counter Proliferation Department. David wrote the Foreword to my book and his insights into the complexity of this topic I’ve researched for so long were beyond useful.

I spent many hours discussing the concept of the manuscript with Rob Smith, the editor of Influence. I wasn’t sure whether the Public Relations and Communication community would be interested in this topic or whether it would run a million miles away. Rob encouraged me to “go for it” and I can never thank him enough.

Last but not least, I owe a debt of gratitude to some gentlemen I respect, both personally and professionally, and whose endorsements and feedback mattered a lot to me. In alphabetical order, these are:

  • Paddy Blewer, Global PR Director specialising in government advisory and foreign direct investment services
  • Diego Gilardoni, international communication consultant and author of Decoding China
  • Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, Adjunct Professor, Communication, The University of Tampa/Director and Ethics Officer, Tampa Bay Chapter, Public Relations Society of America
  • Francis Ingham, Public Relations and Communications Association Director General, Chief Executive of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, LGComms Executive Director
  • Alex Malouf, EMENA Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators; Board Member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management; Member of the National Advisory Council, College of Communication and Media Sciences, Zayed University
  • Alastair McCapra, CEO, Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • Jem Thomas, Director of Training and Research, Albany Associates
  • Jon White PhD, Visiting Professor, Reading University Henley Business School, and Honorary Professor, Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies

There are many difficult conversations we need to have in Public Relations, and extremism is one of them. If you do read my book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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