IPI Publication: Strategic Communications in UN Peace Operations — From an Afterthought to an Operational Necessity
By Jake Sherman and Albert Trithart
United Nations peace operations are increasingly recognizing strategic communications as essential to implementing their mandates and managing expectations about what they can and cannot achieve. While the use of strategic communications in UN peace operations is not new, it has taken on added importance due to changes in patterns of violence and in the technological landscape. These changes are being exploited by armed groups and other stakeholders to shape perceptions of the political landscape, undermine confidence in missions, and mobilize violence, UN personnel, and other targets. At the same time, the communications revolution offers UN peace operations new capabilities to share information with the public and gather public input.
In response to these changes, UN missions have been ramping up their communications capabilities and shifting their approach. Nonetheless, missions continue to face obstacles. Many mission leaders do not treat strategic communications as central to planning and decision making. Most missions lack strategic communications personnel with the up-to-date, specialized skills needed, and there is a general lack of training. Missions also lack adequate policy and guidance and systems for monitoring and evaluating their strategic communications activities.
To address these challenges, UN peace operations need to continue adapting their approach to designing strategic communications plans. As a starting point, strategic communications should be directly in service to a mission’s mandated objectives. Missions should keep in mind all audiences and constituencies — domestic, regional, and international — and tailor their messages to each of them. These messages should be grounded in evidence, rooted in story-telling, and transmitted through credible messengers. Communications should also be two-way so that missions are not simply informing local communities but also being informed by them. Finally, missions should regularly monitor, evaluate, and learn from their strategic communications.
To effectively adapt their approach to strategic communications, missions need additional and modernized capabilities. This requires both more targeted recruitment and better training. They also need to give communications personnel a seat at the decision-making table as part of a shift toward a whole-of-mission, preventive approach to strategic communications. Toward this end, there is a need for more accountability and guidance on strategic communications, as well as more coordination both within missions and with other actors. Ultimately, peace operations require a cultural shift, with mission leaders seeing strategic communications as a core mission capacity.
The following paper was recently authored and published by the International Peace Institute (IPI). Many of the paper’s findings stem from a virtual workshop organized by IPI with support from the United Nations Department of Peace Operations (DPO) in April 2021, which examined current strategic communications practices in UN peace operations, recommended what additional capacities, resources, and approaches are needed, and identified lessons that peace operations could learn from other parts of the UN system and external communications professionals.
Link to the publication: Strategic Communications in UN Peace Operations — From an Afterthought to an Operational Necessity