Strategic Communication and Propaganda: New Reality Demands New Regulatory Approaches?

Fedor Smirnov, a 2015 Annenberg-Oxford participant and ICT practitioner in Russia, discusses strategic communication as a way of framing the current Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Strategic communication, communication “designed with a particular schema concerning who should be reached and in what way,” has been instrumental in communication studies for a long time.[1] Recent developments, including new technology, new surveillance tools, and new data analysis techniques, have led to the rethinking of this term and the introduction of a new level of strategic communication with new contexts for implementation.

Changing dimensions of speech in society was the main focus during the first week of the Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute 2015. During this first week, over thirty scholars and experts from all over the world combined their experiences and brought forth best practices and new ideas in the media regulatory field to extend and update understandings of strategic communication in society.

Connecting discussions of fundamental theoretical concepts to current issues, the sophisticated communication practices in the on-going conflict between Ukraine and Russia was a case study raised almost everyday of discussion. Throughout the week, this conflict was framed through the lens of Russian media propaganda in Ukraine, the on-going information war, and the deterioration of media freedom.

Initial and simplified attempts to resolve this highly complex issue lead to the relativization of basic concepts traditionally used in this filed such as prohibited communication practices, human rights, and freedom of media. If the case, however, is considered in terms of strategic communication, one may notice that Ukraine builds a “market for loyalties” which is of serious interest for both state actors – Russia and Ukraine. For historical and cultural reasons, Russian media have a substantial market share in the Eastern Ukraine, and Russia offers “market for loyalties” for Ukrainian media. Russian speakers residing in Crimea and on the territories of the unrecognized republics of Donetsk and Lugansk have a high level of confidence in Russian media, and   this opens up opportunities for manipulation. On the other hand, some stakeholders in Russia are looking for alternative sources of information, which gives the Ukrainian media the opportunity to deliver their strategic narratives. Regardless, the current constrained geopolitical situation is motivating both governments to use intense propaganda, which, unless used for war, is considered a non-prohibited activity in accordance with ICCPR, Article 20.

Nevertheless, propaganda as stated in the Report of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, is “dangerous instrument that can be used to dominate the public sphere, restricting access to information and thus distorting pluralism and the open exchange of ideas.” In the Russia-Ukraine fight for market for loyalties, concerns have been raised regarding attempts to suppress media freedom and violent attacks against journalists reported from both sides of the on-going conflict. Extensive use of propaganda seems to be very harmful for the media situation and may result in loss of confidence, massive hate speech practices, and substantial deterioration of the journalism in both countries.

In the current political environment both state actors are executing their own strategies and will likely continue violating basic principles of media freedom in order to sell their strategic narratives. In this case, the effectiveness of intergovernmental organizations, such as the OSCE which plays a mediatory role, is quite doubtful.

How should new challenges raised by strategic communication in very specific environments such as Russia and Ukraine be addressed by academic research and regulatory practice?

Shortcomings and limitations of present approaches are obvious enough to call for elaboration of new concepts. I believe this process started within the discussions at Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute facilitated by the real case-study (Russian vs. Ukrainian propaganda) and will result in a more effective communication beneficial for all stakeholders.


Further Reading:

  1. Media Sapiens. (2015, May 13). Analytical Reports “Counteraction to Russian Information Aggression: Joint Action to Protect Democracy.” Retrieved from:
http://www joint-action-to-protect-democracy/
  2. Mijatović, D. (2014). Media Freedom in Ukraine. OSCE. Retrieved from: http://www
  3. Theise E. (2015, June 24). OSCE Caught in the Crossfire of the Ukraine propaganda war. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from:
  4. Yuhas, A. (2014, March 17). Russian Propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: How Does it Work?. The Guardian. Retrieved from: russia-propaganda-media


[1] Price, M. E. (2014). Chapter 2: Strategic communication and the foundations of free expression. In Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication. Cambridge University Press.


Fedor Smirnov is an ICT practitioner from Russia, working in the field of Internet infrastructure. In 2012 he joined as the Chief Marketing Officer and continued his professional development on the Russian domain names & hosting market. Currently Fedor Smirnov is a Board Member and Secretary of the ISOC Russia Chapter – an NGO that plays an active role in media policy (primarily, Internet policy) in Russia. Fedor’s areas of interest are ICT & Internet policy, cybersecurity, Internet and Human Rights, and the Information Society. 


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