Voice Of America

For the better part of a century, America has confronted enemies that appreciate the power of “the message,” from the broad spectacle of the Nazi propaganda machine to the insidious indoctrination of extremist madrassas. Communications is a strategic asset, the infrastructure we depend upon to convey the American message. Our adversaries compete for the same infrastructure. Historically, when America’s strategic interests have been in the balance—the Cold War, energy solvency, safety within our borders—presidents have restructured federal agencies and resources to meet the challenge, forming the Departments of Defense, Energy and Homeland Security. America’s perseverance in a wired, media-intensive world calls for a similar cabinet-level solution: the Department of Communications.

The global village now sprawls from bloggers to multimedia conglomerates, a matrix unimagined even in the generation of Cronkite and McLuhan, which first envisioned a planet condensed by communication. Unfortunately, our government mirrors today’s vast information frontier with its own diffusion of information capability, endangering its clear purpose and focus. The State Department includes a Public Diplomacy division charged with “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” The Defense Department briefly operated the Office of Strategic Influence, which came under fire for considering the spread of disinformation as a tactic in the war against terrorism. In 2002, President Bush created the Office of Global Communications to help shape America’s message and coordinate the actions of public affairs and communications departments throughout the executive branch. As he did with Homeland Security, the president must adapt this communications office into a cabinet department.

The new Department of Communications would oversee America’s media and communications presence. A secretary of communications would head the department, a cabinet member with commensurate authority and access to the president. The secretary would formulate and execute a coherent communications plan under the president’s direction, with input from the president’s advisers and fellow cabinet members. The American government’s interaction with world media and its own electronic and print media production would be consolidated in the new department.

This management model is found in corporations across the country where a senior executive runs all communications functions and reports directly to the CEO. Company divisions maintain communications staffs that serve the needs of division heads while remaining under the direction and guidance of the chief communications officer. Associations of communication professionals, such as the Public Relations Society of America, routinely advise that an organization’s top echelon include a communications executive whose standing is equivalent to other divisional leadership.

To maintain and enhance America’s effectiveness in communications and media, a secretary of communications must follow these directives:

–Understand audiences domestic and foreign, interpreting their motivations, cultures and needs.

–Utilize communications channels from grassroots to global, comprehending the effect each has on a target audience.

–Receive input from key audiences since effective organizational communications is always bi-directional.

–Advise the president in a forthright manner, establishing a source of counsel as unvarnished and valuable as a secretary of state reporting on sensitive international negotiations or a secretary of defense assessing troop readiness.

Harry Truman united separate armed forces departments into the Department of Defense, the structure required for our continuing worldwide military deployment. By launching the Department of Energy, Jimmy Carter combined government efforts to guard America from rising costs and tightening supplies of fuel. After 9/11, George W. Bush took similar decisive action to create the Department of Homeland Security.

Using this recent experience, he must end our piecemeal approach to communications with a new cabinet department dedicated to the American message.