The Road to Hell

Break the Islamic State's Brand

CalmSince 1941, the Ad Council has mustered creative talent and donated media to tackle problems from fire safety to drug addiction. As far as I know, the public relations industry has no equivalent organization. But the need is great and at the top of the list: terrorism.

I know when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I also realize many people consider public relations frivolous at best and evil at worst.

But does anyone doubt the Islamic State is winning the public relations war?

I don't mean it has convinced the majority of the world's population the west is bent on destroying Islam. I don't think it has even convinced a significant number of Muslims of that.  But it has created a toxic environment that, in itself, threatens the values of modern society.

It is forcing a false choice between liberty and security. It has reframed every debate that matters, from the U.S. presidential elections to immigration policy. It has thrown fuel on long-standing controversies like the meaning of the second amendment and the legitimate limits of personal privacy. And it is using the techniques of modern communications to further its cause.

The F.B.I. warns that the Islamic State is “crowdsourcing” terrorism by using social media to leapfrog our defenses with a poisonous narrative that Islam is under attack by the west. And as we have seen, its message is strong enough to mobilize a small number of gullible and disaffected to take up arms and counter-attack. 

The very randomness of those attacks magnifies their terror and makes Islamic State look more attractive and successful to the disaffected. Terror becomes both a weapon and a recruiting tool.

And because the media correctly tie terror in the homeland to the larger conflict overseas, it seems more pervasive than it is. For example, since the Sept. 11 attacks about the same number of people have been killed by Islamic terrorists on U.S. soil as by  right-wing extremists -- 45 and 48 respectively. 

All of this sounds like a public relations problem to me. And I don't mean it's simply a perception problem that can be messaged away. But our response has to be more than dropping more bombs, deploying more troops, tightening border controls, and increasing surveillance of targeted groups. Political and social changes in the countries where the Islamic State has built havens are also part of the solution. And so is a smart, global public relations campaign.

The Obama administration has begun outlining some of its essential elements.  Head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wants to build stronger ties to the U. S. Muslim community, which is uniquely positioned to counter the Islamic State's extremist propaganda and to de-legitimize its claims to statehood by exposing its barbaric treatment of fellow Muslims.

Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, wants the private sector's help. “Frankly, we’ve got to do a better job of approaching this in a way that allows us to break the brand of ISIL’s message,” she says.

The public relations industry should take a cue from the Ad Council by putting its best minds on the case, validating or redrafting current assumptions and pulling together a long-term strategy for dealing with global terrorism.


Thank you, Dick, for your clear perspective on the terroism communication challenge and your call to arms.

Your summary is abolutely correct. I would also stress that we need to educate our own fellow Americans about the values shared by real Muslims as opposed to these thugs who have cherry picked and perverted Islamic doctrines and ideas to serve their own ends. Most Americans have no idea what real Muslims believe and it's basis in Judaism and Christianity.

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