Interview with James Thomas Snyder, NATO Information Officer

Between March 23rd and April 19th riders of the Washington D.C. metro system saw a unique ad campaign about NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. The poster campaign, which featured photos of allied troops performing a variety of civil service as well as military tasks above slogans like Defending Freedom, Working for Peace and Securing Afghanistan’s Future was the brainchild of NATO Information Officer James Thomas Snyder. Snyder, who is based in the Brussels headquarters, works in the section responsible for public diplomacy towards Denmark, Norway and the United States. He spoke to PD‘s Alexis Haftvani and Lorena M. Sanchez about the goals and outcomes of the campaign.

PD: How did the NATO display campaign originate?

SNYDER: The original impetus behind it was a visit I made to Washington in February 2008 with the head of my division, the Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy. I was amazed to see that regardless of party or ideological affiliation—Pentagon, State Department, civilian, military, think tank, non-think tank—everybody I talked to had this almost knee jerk skepticism of the weight that the allies, that is the non-Americans forces, were carrying in Afghanistan.  The endpoint of the campaign was to tweak that perception. It was policy makers and policy thinkers that I wanted to target. It’s an idea that has been kicked around a while, but because we are uncomfortable, institutionally, with such a direct approach it took us a long time to get to this point. But there was enough institutional support by the time I came up with this idea, and a lot of the allies saw a national interest in promoting their contributions to the Washington community.  

Was it intended to serve in conjunction with the April 3rd and 4th summit [in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany] celebrating the 60th anniversary of NATO?

One of the points of the campaign was to maximize attention on the summit—leading up to it, during the summit itself, and during its wind down as people were talking about what happened. I specifically chose the days from March 23 to April 19 to bracket what I expected to be the highest point of interest in the summit from a media standpoint and from a policy standpoint, particularly in the Washington community.

Did you prioritize particular Metro lines for high traffic reasons?

We didn’t have the choice of picking where it would go in the Metro, it’s a random distribution. But I ran an average and it would be one per train and about one per car so we figure it had a reasonably good penetration. And most people I talked to who live and work in Washington, and certainly those who commute saw it.

Some of the messages within the posters are particularly evocative including “Democracy Echoes Security” and “Working for Peace.” Can you tell us how you came up with these messages? 

The initial idea was to include Afghanistan as part of a much larger campaign that would be NATO writ large, that would be NATO history, the founding of the organization, the Cold War, the resolution of the Cold War. But that got whittled dow, basically because we didn’t think we could do a large enough campaign and we were definitely concerned the message would get muddled. So we really had to focus on Afghanistan which was the right choice to make. In developing that we came up with several lines. One of them was “Working for Peace.” That is ultimately what NATO is about and that’s what a part of the broad structuring of the campaign is about. We want a peaceful stable Afghanistan for everyone’s sake—for the Afghans, for us in the North Atlantic Region, and also in the Central Asian region as well. 

When it came to “Democracy Echos Security” that gets to one of the ways we think of Afghanistan, which you could call a counterinsurgency strategy or what we call the comprehensive approach. The security environment affects the economic environment which affects the governance environment and all of these are connected and you can’t just focus on one piece of the puzzle. You have to work the whole puzzle together at the same time.

Part of what was important about communicating “Democracy Echos Security” was we wanted to show the Washington audience that we, at NATO, got the concept of this comprehensive approach; that we have to apply all of these tools of national power in order to fix Afghanistan; that while NATO is a security organization, security is only one piece of the puzzle. And we’re also working on these other pieces as well. 

Were you able to measure the success of this campaign?  Did you have certain metrics you used to evaluate effectivenesss?

That is the first thing we wanted to know after it ran but it wasn’t the first question we had when we [were planning the campaign because] one of the systemic problems of the campaign was cost.  Therefore the only [measure] that we have is basically: What was the outcome of the campaign that we saw in the external media and in web traffic? 

But here are two things that we do know: One is that reported this staggering spike in viewership from one day to the next. From Monday, March 23 to Tuesday, March 24 we saw a spike from 64,577 page views on Monday to 301,854 page views on Tuesday.  That seems to suggest that something was happening. The second bit was that we saw from the District of Columbia a 50% increase in traffic to compared to the same monthly period from the previous year, which again is indicative. The lesson that we learned is that we have to be a lot more sophisticated the next time we do something like this in measuring traffic with the Internet. And we also have to pay the money to do a serious viewer survey and figure out not only what kind of impact it had but how we can improve the campaign the next time around.

Were there any surprises in the feedback that you got?  Perhaps people responding to it whom you didn’t anticipate?

I had [envisioned] kind of a proto-typical audience member—a career civil servant or military person who is working on policy, particularly related to Afghanistan—who had a preconception about the allies in Afghanistan that I thought these graphic depictions of allied operations would change.  And [I got] comments that pretty much said almost exactly what I wanted to hear: “The allies are doing stuff. They’re getting their hands dirty. They’re doing the full spectrum of operations. They’re really stepping up. They’re doing what we’re asking them to do.” 

One of the negative pieces of feedback I had was: “Why are we doing this at all?”  I think there’s a certain kind of person out there—and this was a concern related to a lot of the visuals we had— who would be put off by pictures of people in uniform and the military-esque aspect of the mission in Afghanistan. So I wanted to emphasize the full spectrum of operations from the actual physical bridge building to the medical contributions and the civil-military outreach. 

Most of the people I talked to about this recognized that fact and they felt that the photographs were dramatic and compelling. It showed the allies in a positive light, but in an accurate light, and it tweaked some perceptions.

Having gone through this experience and created this display, how will you build on the success of the campaign and continue to generate awareness?

It was really exciting because the key thing was we set the precedent. We did it so we could do it again. And because the thing was portable I was literally able to send it off. I’ve had it displayed at various conferences and various venues.

What we want to do now is figure out how we can do this in different environments—in other public transit systems, other media. And I want to push this on some of my colleagues to figure out ways to adapt this concept to reach people directly such as young, educated, often times decision-making people in capitals like Berlin, Oslo, London, Ottowa. Because we feel confident that we’re accurately representing NATO and we’re raising awareness.

The problem is this campaign couldn’t necessarily work outside the Anglo-Saxon context. As full spectrum and soft edge as it is for the American context, there’s no way it would work in most of the European capitals. That is, many of the countries would prefer to see their own people, their own forces, in a NATO operation as opposed to the French, the Americans, the Brits, the Spanish. So conceptually it’s very flexible but when you actually boil it down to “How’s this going to play in Madrid?” or “How is this going to play in Copenhagen?” you really have to think very clearly about how you’re going to communicate in that very particular national culture. 

What [is also a problem with] this campaign is that it’s mostly static. I think what we’ll probably do next is limit the campaign to a handful of images but then make sure those images are about real people whose stories we can tell through multimedia modules on our website. A lot of campaigns work this way now. It’s called “multi-platform” where you’ve got TV, various forms of print, and web and they’re all mutually reinforcing.  They’re all telling the same story but in different formats.

Do you think this campaign represents a new paradigm in thinking about the need for outreach to global publics, to have organizations like NATO speak not just to government officials but beyond them to larger publics?

Absolutely. That was part of the intent, definitely on my part, which was to get out of NATO headquarters, get out of the conference rooms and reach the public. And we have a strategy of reaching out to a younger demographic and successive generations. We’re trying to develop new tools like this but it’s not easy. We have NATO TV because we know we have to feed things to viewers and media. We have a reputation-building campaign which is a web-based video found on our platform. We took up ads in publications prior to the anniversary summit in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy and other magazines in order to try to reach a broader public. 

A good chunk of what we do is an attempt to broaden the base, to reach larger numbers of people and we’re trying to figure out how to do that. It’s not the easiest thing in the world and you can do it wrong very easily. But you can always improve. Public diplomacy should put the public first. I talk to thousands of Americans and Europeans each year and it’s one of the greatest pleasures of this job so if I didn’t have that, if I didn’t feel like I was reaching the public, I wouldn’t feel effective.