Communications and information programmes

  • Last updated: 02 Dec. 2015 11:39

In an intergovernmental organisation 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 in order to help raise awareness and understanding of the Alliance and Alliance-related issues and, ultimately, to foster support for, and trust in, the Organization.

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  • Member countries hold the prime responsibility for developing national programmes for their publics, but NATO also promotes public debate and understanding of the Alliance.
  • NATO’s information programmes and communications are principally undertaken by the Public Diplomacy Division (PDD).
  • PDD also harmonises all public diplomacy activities and coordinates strategic communication activities NATO-wide.
  • At NATO Headquarters, a number of actors such as the Secretary General, the Chairman of the Military Committee and the Committee on Public Diplomacy navigate the information environment. This is all managed by PDD.
  • In today’s information age, PDD seeks to reach out to the largest number of people possible through direct engagement and the use of modern communication tools and technologies. 
  • The importance of communicating on NATO’s role and activities was recognised very early on within the Organization in 1950, just one year after the creation of the Alliance.

More background information

  • Role of public information and communications

    On 18 May 1950, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) issued a resolution in which it committed itself to: “Promote and coordinate public information in furtherance of the objectives of the Treaty while leaving responsibility for national programs to each country...” A few years later, in 1956, the Report of the Three Wise Men reiterated this approach.

    The ethos that drove the Alliance’s communications efforts in the early days was 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.

    This drive to inform and engage with the public is reinforced by the knowledge that NATO is accountable to its member governments and their taxpayers who fund the Organization. As such, and in a spirit of transparency, it explains its policies, activities and functions.

    NATO’s information and communications services

    NATO’s information programmes and communications are principally undertaken by PDD - NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division - which also harmonises all public diplomacy activities and leads strategic communication activities NATO-wide. Strategic communications seek to coordinate and synchronise a wide range of civilian and military communication activities across the Organization.

    The overall aim is 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, NATO engages with the media, develops communications and information programmes for selected groups including opinion leaders, academic and parliamentary groups, youth and educational circles. It seeks to reach audiences worldwide via its platforms, in particular, through the website, NATOChannel and social media activities. It also disseminates materials and implements programmes and activities with external partners, while at the same time supporting the NATO Secretary General in his role as the principal spokesperson for the Alliance. 

    Promoting security cooperation

    These 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 specialised 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 Kyiv. 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 audiences in partner countries.

    Types of activities

    The substantial changes brought about with the information age, mobile media and user-generated content imply a process of constant reform and modernisation: 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.

    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.

  • Working mechanisms

    The NAC 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 NATO Deputies Committee guides overall strategic communications on behalf of the NAC. Issue-specific NATO committees provide more detailed guidance, commenting on issues ranging from NATO maritime strategy through support to operations.

    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 PDD serving as the Chairman.

    Military dimension

    Members of the International Staff (IS) who run the different communications and information programmes work closely with the Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Advisor to the Chairman of the Military Committee (MC). Although administratively part of the International Military Staff (IMS), the office also works with the IS to facilitate this coordination.

    The MC, as well as the Chairman of the MC in his role as the principal military spokesperson, also provide guidance to direct communications and information programmes, with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) providing guidance on the communication efforts of Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation, respectively.

  • Evolution of communications

    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 organisation 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.

    In 1956, the Report of the Three Wise Men stressed the overall importance of non-military cooperation and the need to develop unity within the Alliance. Cooperation in the information field was identified as one of the areas the Alliance should reinforce, stating that “The people of the member countries must know about NATO if they are to support it.” To do so, it recommended that “The promotion of information about, and public understanding of NATO and the Atlantic Community should, in fact, be a joint endeavor by the Organization and its members.” 

    Since then and over time, 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. The information service itself has also been reformed and restructured on numerous occasions to adapt to the different needs of the constantly evolving information environment, as well as to the needs of the security environment.