Winning the war of words against Daesh – Sven Hughes

Good afternoon.

This short speech will focus on the new strategic communications opportunities that present themselves as a consequence of Daesh.

I see no need to further-amplify their actual messaging here. But the sheer volume of the Daesh output is instructive.

Information operations are now a vital aspect of Daesh’s tactical and strategic planning process. And this provides us with their weakness as well as their supposed strength.

To disrupt this output impacts directly on their credibility, recruitment and funding. It is only through the information war that a permanent solution can realistically be achieved.

CONTEST, PREVENT, the recent Counter Extremism Strategy. Under these banners, there is excellent work being done to bring communities together. Educating and enfranchising. Fostering dialogue over division. Government departments working as one to stop people, “becoming terrorists and supporting terrorism”.

And that’s not forgetting the concurrent grassroots initiates within schools, mosques and the 3rd sector.

With all that effort that should really be it, problem solved? Daesh stands to become a one-generation issue like the Baader Meinhof Group?

I’m not so sure. Because any government-led top-down solution comes with a range of realities and risks:

But if propaganda is Daesh’s emphasis and therefore their potential weak spot, we must surely overmatch them in this area? With the freshest minds and most innovative solutions?

So, how to engage these new voices? Where will they come from?

Do we really have the systems and processes in place to diversify the enfranchisement? To find new ways to provide support messaging, beyond the existing government-led initiatives?

Beyond the National Security Council. Beyond RICU. Who is best placed to deliver in this area?

This leaves the private sector. But is there a way to enfranchise this talent in new ways beyond the traditional tendering process?

Meantime, as we consider our options, the Daesh propaganda output is increasing. And they are entwining their narrative around issues that resonate directly with our domestic audiences: cynicism of the media, of politics, capitalism, migration…

So what’s the solution?

To effectively scale our national strategic communications effort we may need to consider entirely new models and responsibilities.

But this is delicate. We need to set aside vested interests and cynicism, and imagine positive new ways to unify our strategy but diversify our responsibilities. Be they government or corporate responsibilities.

In preparation for this talk, I have been canvasing opinion amongst many stakeholders. Retired and serving information operations soldiers. Members of parliament. Charity and NGO representatives. As well as other private sector stratcoms professionals.

What is reassuring is the degree of unity that exists around this issue. A recognition of the need, as well as a unanimous desire to get involved and help.

But also a consistent nervousness amongst private and 3rd sector interviewees about getting involved proactively for fear of doing the wrong thing. “Meddling” in such a serious issue and risking inappropriate and counter-productive action.

To use a sporting analogy, it’s like we have an entire bench of world-class players sitting on the touchline but never actually being called into the game.

So how can we engage the right additional private sector talent without it being a perceived, or an actual, bid for extra contracts?

I can’t claim the following five ideas are all mine – but they are the result of the stakeholder interviews I have conducted. They represent new ways to engage and amplify fresh voices in the war of words against Daesh. New ways to crowd-source the UK communications industry. To add additional value.

I think perhaps they show the degree to which the private sector is, in some areas, willing to help if they were only asked.

Because there is, and always has been, a proud record of the communications industry proactively providing ‘in kind’ support to charities and campaign issues. There is some capacity. There is talent that wants to spread its wings and show what it can do. Let’s capitalize on this, as a country.

So, the first idea that emanated from the stakeholder interviews was the need for a new centre of gravity to unify and steer this possible extra support in the information war against Daesh.

Perhaps a committee, comprising both senior communications professionals and government officials. Yes, overseen by the National Security Council, but with a mandate to diversify private sector engagement. By building new bridges. By setting the guidance for others to follow. So those who want to use their talents to help their country know how best to focus their efforts.

Secondly, a private/public incubator initiative for the information operations space. Similar to the way in which Niteworks has been so effective for the technical space. A hotshop to analyse problems and co-create disruptive solutions in response to the fast-changing methods adopted by Daesh.

I feel confident that members of the communications industries would be willing to get involved, for the national interest.

Thirdly, a more overt, structured and proactive way in which to cross-pollinate skills and working practice into the public sector. Skills training, work experience, skills sharing. It is something my company has undertaken. I can honestly say that the skills and experience the private sector receives from former military personnel and work placements, is equal to what is transferred in return.

Fourth, industry cooperation with government to bring the skills of the communication industry to our most vulnerable communities. To enfranchise the very target audiences Daesh is trying to reach. So that community representatives can talk back on their own terms but with a level of professional know-how to get their voices heard, online and offline.

Facebook and Google are already doing this in the digital space. I have every confidence there are hundreds of world-class communications professionals who would gladly give a day of their time to support such an initiative.

Lastly, an industry-supported platform to call for, and host, proactive counter Daesh messaging from within the communications industry.

Virals, posters, disruptive ideas. A place where our creative talent can upload their efforts for wider distribution. Global brands call for proactive campaign ideas. And our industry responds because we love a challenge and the opportunity to flex our creative muscles. Why can’t our country be our client?

Just five ideas as a result of my recent conversations. But there are many more. And an industry-supported steering committee could and would bring these new solutions on stream.

Always, with clear guidance of the NSC or RICU, but with the expressed intent of dissipating the briefs wider. To enfranchise young talent right around the country.

If we set aside our vested interests and preconceptions, we can build the necessary bridges and structures.

There are many within the private sector that can and want to help more. Proactively. But we need to know what, and when, is useful.

This is what we attempted to do with the ‘notanotherbrother’ viral film for Quilliam. We researched the target audience. We assessed Daesh’s production and distribution techniques. Their narratives and recruitment language. And then we wrote, produced and disseminated the viral ourselves.

We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do - and that it would work.

And it did work. I have been informed that the film has been described as the most effective counter-radicalisation viral ever made. That’s for others to decide.

What I know for sure is that my team got huge satisfaction as well as valuable experience from producing the film. It was an investment well worth making and one we would be happy to make again. A genuine win-win.

I would love to think that next year we can meet here again. With a new steering committee in existence. With other work to discuss made by other private sector companies because they wanted to ‘do their bit’.

We will win the war of words against Daesh if we enfranchise the unlikely and amplify the unheard.

Achieving genuine cut-through. Reaching key audiences more nimbly and more effectively than Daesh. In support of, and in addition to, existing government initiatives.

Daesh is challenging us all in new ways. Private and public. But it is for us to decide how we turn these challenges into opportunities.

And it’s our ability to decide for ourselves that lies at the very heart of the democratic process Daesh seeks to undermine.

It’s only right therefore that our decisions should be part of the solution.

Thank you.