A Review of James Farwell’s “Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication”

Farwell CoverBy Bernie Lee

When you are lost without a GPS, a map can come in really handy, unless you are in a desert where it’s hard to get your bearings in the blinding sun and with no discernible landmarks. Vast amounts of information are splashing over our laptop screens and flashing across our smartphones and it’s growing exponentially larger. This has made it more apparent that people need a knowledgeable guide to help make sense of this dense and ever-shifting landscape of media. We already have news aggregators carefully shaping the way we get our news but, is there a bias? Can we trust that it’s the truth?  Can we trust our guide or are they lost in the desert too?

Rather than try to lead you out of the desert himself, James P. Farwell gives you the intellectual tools to make sense of the landscape yourself. He does not make any grand statements that you’re going to be able to discern the truth because when you try to find the truth, you usually end up with not only t more information but also, a lot more questions. The beginning of his bookspecifies that he is not talking about all information but just strategic communication – the information operations, public affairs, and public diplomacy used by governments to disseminate information with a specific purpose to inform and  also shape opinion. Even this is a loaded term that he carefully breaks down with plenty of proffered definitions from the defense, diplomatic, and news, and academic communities.

Farwell first breaks down strategic communication into a two factor matrix. First, you have psychological operations and propaganda. The lines he draws here are like trying to draw pictures in the sand while the winds keep blowing and blurring the image. Essentially, psychological operations are what your benevolent government entities use to spread information while, other adversarial governments use propaganda to shape the information you receive. This is then opposed by the concepts of public affairs and public diplomacy. Public affairs is the strategic communication that governments use to inform the public they govern while public diplomacy is the information that governments send out to other countries to inform their government and people.

Farwell then breaks down what the fundamental elements of communication are and their mediums of delivery. Words are conveyed through books and speeches. Images and symbols create associations through colors, art, and architecture. Deeds communicate through the timing of political actions or events. He continues from here with a discussion on the grand strategies employed by leaders and the various communication techniques utilized to influence others. One of the explanations on these strategies and tactics was very reminiscent of how chess players discuss opening sequences, strategies to get through the middle game, and end game tactics. The book finishes with an overview of two major tools in communication, radio and television, and a discussion on how to clear up the confusion in the realm of strategic communication.

One of the best parts of this book is that Farwell utilizes a nearly exhaustive list of examples for every major discussion point. This gives the reader a very judicious overview of how to digest and establish a common language to approach strategic communication. While many of the examples often seemed to bleed together, they left an overall impression of being fair and balanced. Lastly, Farwell discusses the role of television and radio in strategic communication.

However, this final section does not touch on the prevalence of the internet and its various communication mediums, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google.  This detracts from the effectiveness of the final section and its arguments on how to improve strategic communication. Actually, the last section comes across as more of a rushed afterthought, which is unfortunate as there are minds, like Alec Ross at the State Department, who are working hard to put together a stronger and more codified course of action on strategic communication.

What it does illustrate is that the world of communications is shifting at an even faster rate than most are able to anticipate. The enormous torrent of media that flashes before us through the internet, television, radio, and print media could cause seizures and trying to sort through it all is like finding your way home through the desert during a sandstorm. However, this book is a good and approachable starting point to use as a foundational reference for further research into creating a general theory on strategic communications.

*****

Bernie Lee is a first year Master’s Candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He specializes in international security and international economics and development. 

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