Communications and information programmes

  • Last updated: 29 Aug. 2013 14:16

With an intergovernmental organization like NATO, individual member governments are responsible for explaining their national defence and security policies as well as their role as members of the Alliance to their respective publics. Complementing these efforts are the programmes developed by NATO itself since NATO also has an obligation to inform publics in member countries and audiences worldwide about its policies and objectives.

View of the room

NATO aims to promote dialogue and understanding, while contributing to the public’s knowledge of security issues and promoting public involvement in a continuous process of debate on security. To do so, it engages with the media, develops communications and information programmes for selected target groups including opinion leaders, academic and parliamentary groups, and youth and educational circles. It seeks to reach audiences worldwide, in particular, through the website, the NATO TV Channel on the Internet and social media activities. It also disseminates hardcopy materials and implements programmes and activities with external partners, while at the same time supporting the NATO Secretary General in his role as spokesperson for the Organization. 

In sum, communication or public diplomacy efforts encompass all measures and means to inform, communicate and cooperate with a broad range of audiences worldwide, with the aim of raising levels of awareness and understanding about NATO, promoting its policies and activities, and thereby fostering support for, trust and confidence in the Alliance.

Communicating with the public was a concern of the Alliance from its inception. As early as May 1950, just one year after the signing of the Washington Treaty, the North Atlantic Council issued a resolution in which it committed itself to: “Promote and coordinate public information in futherance of the objectives of the Treaty while leaving responsibility for national programs to each country...” (18 May 1950).

The same ethos drives NATO’s communications and information programmes today, as reasserted by NATO Heads of State and Government in 2009: “As NATO adapts to 21st century challenges in its 60th anniversary year, it is increasingly important that the Alliance communicates in an appropriate, timely, accurate and responsive manner on its evolving roles, objectives and missions. Strategic communications are an integral part of our efforts to achieve the Alliance’s political and military objectives.” However, the substantial changes brought about with the information age, mobile media and user-generated content imply a process of constant reform and modernization: communication tools have multiplied and have the potential to hit a bigger and more diverse audience. At the same time, the need for instant communication, direct interaction and information-sharing is increasing.

  • Role of the communications and information programmes

    Role of the communications and information programmes

    NATO’s communications and information programmes complement public information activities initiated by the governments of each member country. They are principally undertaken by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, which also coordinates all strategic communication activities across all NATO civilian and military bodies and harmonizes all public diplomacy activities undertaken by other entities belonging to the NATO structure.

    Types of activities

    To adjust to advances in technology, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the increasing popularity of social media, the Alliance uses internet-based media and public engagement, in addition to traditional media, to build awareness of and support for NATO’s evolving role, objectives and missions. In short, the Alliance employs a multi-faceted and integrated approach in communicating and engaging with the wider public.

    Communicating and engaging with the public
    24h media operations

    Press and media provide support for the NATO Secretary General, as the principal spokesperson for the Alliance, in addition to arranging briefings and interviews with journalists, organizing press conferences and press tours, conducting media monitoring and hosting exhibits. They also ensure that at major events, such as summits or ministerial meetings, adequate resources are available for journalists, senior officials and real-time coverage of events. A Media Operations Centre focuses on NATO-led operations and all related media activities. It ensures the coordination of activities, the harmonization of messages and the day-to-day management of communication activities touching on any one of NATO’s operations or missions.

    People-to-people engagement

    NATO organizes cooperation programmes, visits, seminars and conferences involving opinion leaders, parliamentarians, civic society groups and experts in member and partner countries. Effectively, NATO staff help to explain NATO and disseminate information in NATO and partner countries, as well as countries where NATO is engaged, by interacting with academics, think-tanks, bloggers and any other group with an interest in NATO and NATO-related issues. An original project is NATO’s SILK-Afghanistan programme, which provides free internet access for Afghan universities and governmental institutions in support of NATO’s operation in the country.

    Visitors can be welcomed to NATO Headquarters and receive briefings and have discussions with experts from NATO’s International Staff, International Military Staff and national delegations on all aspects of the Alliance’s work and policies. Alternatively, NATO officials, including the Secretary General and other senior Alliance officials, participate in special flagship events in member countries and partner countries.

    Mass communication, image-building and branding

    The Alliance publishes and disseminates material that covers a broad range of NATO-related topics in both electronic and print formats, often in a variety of NATO and partner country languages.

    The website provides access to details about NATO policies and activities, including public statements, background information, official documents, video interviews, audio files and real-time coverage of major NATO-related events. It also gives access to the resources of the NATO multimedia library, which inter-alia caters for internal and external requests on NATO-related publications. The online NATO TV Channel offers video stories and releases b-roll to broadcast media outlets, thereby broadening NATO’s reach further still. Additionally, the in-house TV and radio studios cover VIP press events and facilitate broadcast media outreach.

    While publicly releasable official documents, statements and video stories are offered online, there are also texts, brochures and other products that exist, which explain policy and lend insight into the underlying objectives and rationale of the Organization. They seek to raise public awareness and contribute to an informed public debate on relevant aspects of security policy.

    Promoting security cooperation

    Communications and information programmes help to stimulate debate on NATO issues and contribute to strengthening knowledge of its goals and objectives in academic circles. Additionally, they give the Alliance access to the views and analysis of the general public and specialized groups within it. Many of the information activities have an interactive, two-way character, enabling the Organization to listen to and learn from the experience of the audiences it addresses, identify their concerns and fields of interest and respond to their questions. There are several instances where NATO is locally set up to increase the impact of its work and interact more frequently with its audiences, for instance with its information offices in Moscow and Kiev. There are also information points in other partner countries and so-called “contact point embassies”, which are literally NATO member country embassies located in partner countries that serve as links between NATO Headquarters in Brussels and target audiences in partner countries.

    Coordinating NATO’s strategic communications activities

    As well as harmonizing public diplomacy activities undertaken by other NATO entities, the Public Diplomacy Division also coordinates all strategic communication activities across all NATO civilian and military bodies.

  • Working mechanisms

    The North Atlantic Council and Secretary General are in charge of the overall direction of communications and information programmes for both the civilian and military sides of the Alliance.

    Civilian dimension

    The Committee on Public Diplomacy (CPD) acts as an advisory body to the NAC on communication, media and public engagement issues. It makes recommendations to the NAC regarding how to encourage public understanding of, and support for, the aims of NATO. In this respect, the Committee is responsible for the planning, implementation and assessment of NATO’s public diplomacy strategy.

    Representatives from each of the NATO member countries constitute the CPD, with the Assistant Secretary General of the Public Diplomacy Division serving as the Chairman and the Public Information Advisor representing the Director of the International Military Staff.

    Military dimension

    Members of the International Staff who run the different communications and information programmes work closely with the Public Information Advisor to the Chairman of the Military Committee. Although administratively part of the International Military Staff (IMS), the military Public Information Advisor’s office also works with the International Staff to facilitate this coordination.

    The Military Committee, as well as the Chairman of the Military Committee in his role as the principal military spokesperson, also provides guidance to direct the communications and information programmes, with SACEUR and SACT providing guidance on the communication efforts of Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation, respectively.

  • Evolution of the communications and information programmes

    The founding members of NATO understood the importance of informing public opinion. As early as August 1950, a modest NATO Information Service was set up and developed in the Autumn with the nomination of a Director.

    The service – similarly to the rest of the civilian organization of the Alliance – did not receive a budget until July 1951. It effectively developed into an information service in 1952, with the establishment of an international staff headed by a Secretary General (March 1952), to which the information service was initially attached.

    Later, in 1953, the Committee on Information and Cultural Relations (now the Committee on Public Diplomacy) was created. As such, from 1953, every mechanism was in place for the development of fully-fledged communications and information programmes.

    Since then and over time, NATO’s public diplomacy programmes have adapted to changes in the political and security environment, as well as to the technical innovations that have a direct impact on communication work.