Q&A: Richard Stengel Says CMOs Can Help Fight ISIS

State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Speaks With Ad Age

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Richard Stengel
Richard Stengel Credit: Courtesy of The State Department

Richard Stengel, U.S. undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, heads the State Department division charged with waging the communications fight against the extremist group ISIS, aka ISIL. The former Time magazine managing editor spoke with Ad Age about how he's using the ad industry in this battle. Lightly edited excerpts follow.

Ad Age: Why have you reached out to Madison Avenue?

Richard Stengel: The battle against ISIL is primarily a military engagement, but … we need to understand the idea of ISIL, the appeal of ISIL, to really defeat them, because the ultimate battle is not on the military battlefield, it's in the information space. I approach it as a media problem, which is what I understand. Part of the outreach to the advertising and consumer-marketing world is we need to understand how to reach their audiences.

Ad Age: What's the advice you've been given from Madison Avenue?

Mr. Stengel: The people I've talked to aren't experts in the Middle East or experts in terrorism, but they're experts in narrative and communications and I've had some real insight from people in advertising and marketing about what the ISIL narrative is. When they win, it's, "David has triumphed over Goliath." And when they lose, the narrative is, "Goliath is ganging up on us." I've always thought that was a very smart way of looking at the power of their messaging and their brand.

Ad Age: Why target moderate Muslims with your message and not extremists?

Mr. Stengel: We have concentric circles of audience and the smallest of those concentric circles … are potential foreign fighters or people on the fence and how we can persuade them it's a very bad idea to do this. The largest audience is the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. By the way, the lion's share of those people -- 99.99999% -- are reviled and repulsed by ISIL. It's not like we need to tell them how awful ISIL is. They're upset that for many people in the West, ISIL becomes the face of Islam. We have many different audiences we're trying to reach, which is why Madison Avenue and CMOs can be helpful.

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