Madison Avenue has helped the U.S. government fight everything from wartime foes to teen smoking. But now that Washington is locked in conflict with ISIS, a deadly enemy with sophisticated propaganda skills, adland seems very far from the front. Where are the country's best communications professionals during the propaganda battle of our time?
Many have ideas to help, even for a conflict that doesn't lend itself to traditional communications strategies, but the government so far has been tentative.
Richard Stengel, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and head of a State division charged with waging the communications fight against ISIS, said he has had informal contacts with marketing professionals.
"We want to reach mainstream Muslims -- the same people who buy fast food and sneakers -- who are reached every day by marketers," Mr. Stengel said. "To me, people who sell consumer products, or soft drinks, or running shoes, understand those audiences, so I've sought out some guidance and other things that we can do together. These people really understand in a really hard-headed way how to reach audiences, and we need to reach audiences with the counter-narrative."
His division, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication, posts regularly to social media in a variety of languages. An English-language Twitter feed, Think Again Turn Away, sends tweets to its more than 21,000 followers that say things like, "Disillusioned preacher defected from #ISIS, fled Syria, says it wasn't what he expected," with a link to a news story.
"We're not going to reach them with a press release," Mr. Stengel said.
Mr. Stengel declined to name the marketers he's contacted, but said they've helped him understand ISIS's homegrown narrative. "We need to understand the idea of ISIL, the appeal of ISIL, to really defeat them," he added, using an alternate acronym for the group. "The ultimate battle is not on the military battlefield, it's in the information space."
"We need to enlist the talent and abilities and techniques in advertising and marketing in this PR battle," Mr. Stengel added.
Despite that, the government seems uncertain exactly how to engage Madison Avenue. Mr. Stengel declined to articulate why the State Department had not struck any formal agreements with ad agencies.
One problem may be the location of the most intense recruiting, thousands of miles from U.S. borders. Another is a belief system on the other side that can't be swayed like just some brand preference.
"The U.S. government is watching this recruitment stuff very closely, but they're less equipped to intervene than to monitor," said a public affairs executive who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "This presents new challenges for us. We know how to talk to Americans, but we're less sophisticated with how we talk to the rest of the world."
There is precedent for tapping traditional PR and advertising agencies for work in the Middle East. In 2004, for instance, the U.S. government hired U.K.-based PR firm Bell Pottinger to create radio and TV ads telling Iraqis about the U.S.-led occupation. But when dealing with a group like ISIS, traditional agencies and mass communication channels won't cut it, observers said.
"You're dealing with an ideology that a 30-second ad can't touch," said Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation.
The better solution, according to Mr. Helmus and others, is working with allied nations in the Middle East and influential individuals in the Muslim community who can "help create genuine and authentic messages."
President Obama has already announced plans to work with the United Arab Emirates to build a digital communication hub in the region. It'll be staffed with native speakers who know how to use digital tools to communicate with local clerics and community members most risk of radicalization.
One person familiar with the partnership said the UAE is considering bringing on an agency that can support the communication effort and partnership.
Anything that's primarily a megaphone for Washington won't work, observers said. "Any hope of turning the tide here will rest on those voices of authority within the community -- moderate clerics, teachers, cultural figures -- articulating a compelling argument as to why the message of ISIS and other Jihadi groups is illegitimate and wrong," said Arik Ben-Zvi, managing director at Glover Park Group. "Those voices exist and perhaps the West can do more to create the platforms for those voices to be amplified. But thinking that getting a western voice onto social media is a solution I think that will fall short."
The West does also need to counter attempts to recruit its own citizens. Last week U.K. authorities said three teenage girls had traveled from London to Syria with the apparent goal of joining ISIS.
"I do think there is an important role for social media to play, some of which is well underway," said Ogilvy PR North America CEO Robert Mathias. He described a search-engine effort in Great Britain "whereby a search for certain extremist terms returns video of a reformed 'convert' explaining that no just God requires one to kill and slaughter, and urges the searcher to examine the true motivation of those who proclaim the need to do so."
But it will take more than that. "You've got to really almost go face to face with those people," said Harold Burson, who was a reporter during the Nuremberg Trials and later became the "Burson" in crisis and public affairs power-house Burson-Marsteller. "The ideas are so deep–seated. It takes much more than advertising."
One communications effort should start in the classroom and stay far away from propaganda, Mr. Burson said. "Schoolchildren, and college people, should know more about what's happening in the world and why we're taking positions we take and why we oppose what we oppose," he said. "I don't believe there's enough of that going on in colleges and in schools in the U.S. right now."
The CIA and FBI should share information on ISIS propaganda with local communities, educating parents and teens in a bid to foster a movement, said Chris Perkins, formerly CMO of Brand USA and currently a senior exec at StrawberryFrog. "With social being such a high influence factor in today's world, if people see there's a problem and its in their own backyard they'll probably stand up to it," Mr. Perkins said.
Some previous campaigns against social ills may actually offer help now. "If there's anything that can be done by agencies, it's the idea of using video to make it cool not to be caught up in misinformation campaigns ISIS uses to sway young people," Mr. Perkins added. That strategy is reminiscent of the "Truth" campaign, which demonized tobacco companies among teenagers by calling out dishonesty.
In Canada, the government has backed a campaign called Extreme Dialogue, with a site full of documentary shorts telling the personal stories of Canadians affected by violent extremism. The U.S. should do more to promote the voices of people who were recruited but ultimately decided not to join ISIS, said Margery Kraus, executive chairman of APCO. It could tap influencers such as actors around the world and even use video-game platforms to project those voices. "I don't think the government can do this," she said. "It has to be outsourced to people who do this kind of emotional storytelling."
Veterans of previous Madison Avenue campaigns against drugs, smoking and even the failure to wear seat belts caution, however, that victory now will be even harder to recognize. A 60% to 70% success rate in the war on drugs would be considered progress, said Gene Grabowski, a partner at D.C. shop K Global who has worked on government efforts including an anti-obesity campaign. With ISIS, one violent murder on YouTube and three more U.K. high schoolers fleeing to Syria to become jihadists are all you need to shake the West.