Principles of War applied to Communication (2010)


We are discussing Jomini, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and a number of other military theorists right now, and the Principles of War are a frequent topic of discussion.

I try and take other frameworks and apply them to communication as a means of articulating better what we do.

So can we apply the Principles of War to modern communications? Here is my stab at it:

Objective: So what are you trying to achieve? We often work with ambiguous guidance, so it is important to firm that ambiguous guidance up into something quantifiable. Additionally, if you don’t know specifically what you are trying to do then how will you know if you are succeeding? I saw a production section work without any standard other than “go out and get stories,” and they produced very little and had low morale. After taking that same crew and giving them a minimum number of products to produce each week, they were ultimately producing that minimum standard of product (usually more), and with a higher quality.

Offensive: We should always be on the offensive. Pushing content out, being as transparent as we can, and applying the DoD Principles of Information. Maximum disclosure, minimum delay when actually applied is being on the offensive.

Mass: In Napoleonic terms, ‘Mass’ meant getting all your troops at one decisive point on the battle field. So in communications, it is the message that could be massed. If important enough, take your message and distribute it out on a variety of networks. Hit your audience multiple times and multiple ways in order for it to actually reach them – and I stress ‘if important enough’. I am currently getting multiple messages, multiple times from a person that wants to start an ultimate frisbee team. No I don’t want to play ultimate frisbee, and no I don’t want to receive repeated messages on it.

Economy of Force: We all have small offices, so utilize your personnel and resources in order to maximize your output. Do more with less as smartly as you can, and get rid of those large, time suck jobs that provide little actual output.

Maneuver: The information environment is in a constant state of change. Don’t fall too in love with a communication method because while it may be effective now, it might now be effective 12 months from now. Try to remain objective and open to new and potentially untested ideas.

Unity of Command. Simple enough. Strong, flexible leadership is needed to run a PA shop. Give direction and guidance, and take the ambiguity that comes in our line of work and try to quantify it as best you can for subordinates.

Security: Most web sites are either a) built by web designers or b) built by web managers. The web designers build sites for aesthetics and normally have little security. The web managers build things that are easier to secure and maintain, and then try and sprinkle a little cosmetics on it. Shoot for the happy medium. If your user interface is awful, no one is going to use it, but make sure it is secure and not easily hacked which can cause its own crisis communication problems.

Surprise: Let’s shoot for the good types of surprise. New ways of communicating, new sites, new programs, new implementations. Keep experimenting, be flexible and don’t get stuck in a rut. Being relevant today means working on the cutting edge, or the ‘front lines’, of communication.

Simplicity: Keep it Simple Stupid. There are gigabytes and gigabytes of content out there that we are all trying to sort through. Emails, social network streams, phone calls, verbal messages, written messages, sticky notes, etc. Message complexity is not going to help.


Mike Nicholson

I've spent my career working in a variety of Strategic Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Executive Outreach positions. With a history of planning, preparing, executing, and assessing communication strategies in the U.S. and abroad, I use this site to write, think and share lessons learned on organizational communications.

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