A new form of defence strategy – the role of strategic communications

In 2020, the concept of strategic communications was discussed within several key strategy documents released by the Australian Department of Defence. The Defence Communication Strategy released early last year, expresses the need for Defence to adopt a “responsive, flexible and innovative approach” to how it communicates to its “people, stakeholders and the community”. Considerable attention in this document is particularly placed on developing Defence’s industry engagement efforts. The Defence Transformation Strategy, launched in November 2020, also delves into the role of strategic communications but with a focus on internal workplace reform through the One Defence principle. Based on such strategy documents, the underlying thread is that communication matters if Defence is to achieve its aims and mission. It is a skill that must be adopted by all within the Defence enterprise rather than to be left to the 168 marketing and communications professionals within Defence.

The role of industry engagement

Capability acquisition and sustainment has always been at the core of what Defence does with current once-in-a-generation capability projects include the acquisition of SEA 1000 Attack Class Future Submarines and F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. As per the Defence Strategic Update released in July 2020, fundamental to the delivery of these capability goals is the facilitation of “[a] robust, resilient and internationally competitive defence industrial basis”.

But communicating and engaging with Defence industry is no mean feat. With over 4,000 businesses employing approximately 30,000 staff, industry is diverse. Naturally, Defence’s eight Global Supply Chain partners will continue to be central in the delivery of Defence capability projects. Defence industry however also includes the mum and dad businesses in regional towns, software companies who supply IT capability, universities researching future technologies and consulting firms who measure workplace productivity. The issues and queries that Defence industry faces are accordingly varied. For example, understanding the language of ASDEFCON can be complex, finding appropriate points of contacts without existing connections can be impossible, and trying to market the utility of non-traditional capabilities to Defence may seem pointless.

The Defence Communication Strategy acknowledges many of the challenges that plague communication and engagement efforts between Defence and industry. The Strategy accordingly calls for Defence to better collaborate with “industry by increasing awareness of why and how SMEs, and industry organisations, can partner with Defence”. Rather than exclusively seeking to understand what industry can provide for Defence, it is about facilitating a genuinely two-way partnership in which both parties benefit.

COVID-19 has in some ways assisted with this process. Instead of traditional forms of in-person industry engagement, a slew of electronic communication channels has recently emerged between Defence and industry. Tools such as webinars, online conferences and GovTeams have been embraced. Regardless of physical distance, those who wish to engage with Defence are afforded the potential through the power of an internet connection.

On the horizon, further reform to industry engagement is underway. Minister for Defence Industry, The Hon Melissa Price MP, announced a five pillar approach to support Defence industry in September 2020. It was also revealed that the Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC) would be relocated from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources to the Department of Defence. This way, CDIC will better be held to account as a conduit between Defence and industry. As 2021 continues to progress, the role of stakeholders such as Capability Managers, Industry Policy Division and CDIC will be central in implementation of industry engagement reform.

A high-performing One Defence enterprise

The One Defence notion involves the creation of a Defence institution that “operates and communicates as a single, unified organisation”. Regardless of job title, rank or whether one wears a uniform, all APS civilians, ADF personnel and contractors work to a common goal – to “defend Australia and its national interests”. Strategic communications is fundamental to this transformation. One Defence reiterates the need to reduce inefficiencies through reducing fragmented messaging, enhancing communication between different Groups and Services and working as united whole.

In practice, the creation of a One Defence culture is fraught with difficulty. A colloquial metaphor used in Defence is that of the “silo”. It illustrates that beyond one’s immediate role, individuals working in Defence are often too short-sighted to see further than the lens of their respective Group or Service. Accountability and motivation is often low due to failure to see how one’s job contributes to the larger Defence landscape. The Defence Communication Strategy acknowledges these challenges. Going forward, there is a need to reinforce Defence’s strategic narrative and the role of all individuals to the Defence mission. That is, the work of all individuals in Defence must be “told and valued as an integral part of the One Defence story”. As per the Defence Transformation Strategy, a strong cultural shift is needed in the implementation of One Defence. It involves coordination from senior Defence leadership. By acting as spokespeople in the workplace context, their purpose is to “communicate… to employees so they understand how they fit in the bigger picture of One Defence”.

The One Defence process isn’t going to be achieved overnight or in one year. Just like any strategic communications reform, it will involve time and effort from a range of Defence leaders to achieve uptake. It also involves both APS civilians and ADF personnel being willing to adopt these reforms. When the process is complete, its ability to pay dividends is indisputable. In an era of great power competition and strategic deterioration in the Indo-Pacific region, the creation of a high-performing One Defence enterprise will allow Defence to respond as a coordinated whole to any challenge or crisis.

Concluding thoughts

To many in Defence, strategic communications is a buzzword and job role that falls in the exclusive remit of marketing and communications professionals. The release of the Defence Communication Strategy as well as other high-level documents such as the Defence Transformation Strategy and Defence Strategic Update remind of Defence’s obligation to deliver communications reform. For full efficacy, this process involves the performance of all individuals within Defence in stakeholder engagement and the effectively dissemination of Defence’s messaging. In this way, strategy communications is just as much of a fundamental input to Defence capability as anything else. It is the foundation on which all organisations thrive, including the Defence enterprise.

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