Mário Nicolini Talks About Strategic Communications

What is strategic communications? How does it differ from other forms of communication and why is it important for states? Find out in the article.

The guest in the recently released episode of the Disinfo Report podcasts produced by Infosecurity.sk was Mário Nicolini, Slovakia’s national expert at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga.

The episode was released on 11 June on Aktuality.sk and on 13 June on Infosecurity.sk. It is also available for listening on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast and YouTube platforms. In the podcast, Mário Nicolini discussed, among other things, the nature and importance of strategic communications, its difference from propaganda, and the specifics of strategic communications addressed to the Slovak audience.

What is strategic communications?

As defined by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, it is a holistic approach to communication based on values and interests that encompasses everything an actor does to achieve objectives in a contested environment. It means that everything we do communicates – words, images, actions – and one should match the other.

The intention of StratCom is to influence and change attitudes, perceptions and actions, and it is important to know the target audience. StratCom aims to achieve strategic goals at the highest level, e.g. to influence the behavior of allies or enemies. Today, these activities compete with others in an ever-changing information environment.

Thus, StratCom is summed up in two words: „Everything communicates.“

Why is strategic communications important for states?

The relevance of StratCom can be demonstrated in Russia’s current war in Ukraine. From the very beginning of the invasion, the West has maintained a united and clear position unequivocally condemning Russia’s aggression, which was complemented by weapons deliveries. In words and deeds, the Ukrainians have thus received an unambiguous message from the West: “We stand with you.”

Such strategic communications on the part of the EU and NATO undoubtedly contributed to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and hold its capital Kyiv in the first phase of the war.

What is the difference between propaganda and StratCom?

NATO no longer officially uses the term propaganda. It has basically been replaced by the terms disinformation (the manipulation of information in order to deceive and cause harm) and malinformation (the use of truthful information in order to cause harm).

The essential difference between StratCom and propaganda lies in the relationship to truth (facts). While black propaganda manipulates the truth, strategic communications is based on facts. Putin’s Russia is a case in point.

While ordinary Russian citizens live in a fictional world presented by the Kremlin in which Ukrainians do not exist as a nation and Russia is fighting Nazis, the facts are clearly showing that Ukraine is heroically defending itself against the worst war since World War II.

There is a significant difference between the information policies of authoritarian regimes such as Russia or China and those of the EU and NATO member states.

The basis of strategic communications must be credibility, which is guarded by free media who represent a democratic watchdog. Our communication is based on the values of a free society while at the same time protecting our free society.

What should be the basis for strategic communications directed at the Slovak audience?

StratCom should clearly be based on values. In addition to the values of democracy and the free world, which are already enshrined in the Constitution, we should build on the events that bind us to this free world – on „moments of sovereignty“.

In our history, these were mainly the creation of the first democratic Czechoslovakia after the First World War on the ruins of the imperial Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Slovak National Uprising as a heroic resistance against Hitler and President Tiso; the defeat of communism in November 1989, and the elections in 1998, in which the undemocratic and pro-Russian leader Vladimír Mečiar was defeated.

Another significant ‚sovereignty moment‘ was our accession to the EU and NATO in 2004, when we truly joined the European and global community. Among these defining moments, the war of Putin’s totalitarian Russia against a free Ukraine should not be absent.

Strategic communications in Slovakia should also be based on the stories of personalities linked to these events – Štefánik, Golian, Viest, the personalities of November 1989, leaders in politics and civil society, the leaders of EU and NATO accession, or President Zelensky and the personalities of free Ukraine.

However, we should not present them as flawless supermen, as dictators do, but also as people with failures, who nevertheless played a historic role in critical moments. Also, we need to tell these stories in a way that the new generation can understand – an example of this is Confident Slovakia, an initiative by civic activists that communicates and promotes positive narratives while also drawing attention to toxic nationalism and disinformation.

What are the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine?

Strong strategic communications can be an advantage if you have it. If not, it can be a huge vulnerability. A successful StratCom campaign can be an essential factor for victory on the battlefield.

The war in Ukraine is being broadcast live by ordinary Ukrainians. Western empathy and compassion have contributed to Russia’s defeat in promoting its story in the West and Ukraine’s victory in our information space.

However, it should be noted that the Russian campaign is doing quite well in Third World countries, where the ‚Western colonial powers‘ are being labelled as the culprits of the war, despite the fact that it’s Russia that is waging an imperialist war in Ukraine. Russia is doing similarly well domestically.

Our main takeaways are:

  • StratCom is a vital capability in modern conflict.
  • Who owns social media and what rules they have is very important.
  • We need a long-term strategy for communicating with the people of Russia and reaching other nations as the contest between democracy and autocracy around the world intensifies.

NATO Strategic Communications Centre  of Excellence: what is it?

Centre s of Excellence (COEs) are international military organizations that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner states. At the NATO StratCom COE, we create an understanding of what is happening in the information space, what threats and attacks we face, and how to respond effectively.

We specialise in research, doctrine development, education and training, and provide practical advice to nations. We have practical tools, such as artificial intelligence, and we are not constrained like traditional government structures.

Despite being called a NATO Centre , the COE is not part of the NATO command structure and is not subordinate to any NATO entity. But the products and expertise of the Centre  are available to the whole Alliance and support NATO’s transformation. Most of the Centre’s outputs in the form of research are publicly available on the web at www.stratcomcoe.org.