Baselines and Signals in Crisis Management
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (left) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right) have dealt with several security crises along their disputed borders (photos via the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments)
Communication is an essential component of crisis management. Doing it right can facilitate de-escalation and reveal options for achieving positive resolution of a crisis. Meanwhile, miscommunication can fuel escalation, drive miscalculation, and break down opportunities for engagement that might otherwise exist. Despite its importance, communication in crisis is not well understood. It is different from day-to-day communicating, and more often than not, it happens indirectly.
When a crisis involves two or more big groups or governments with myriad policy actors and limited mechanisms for dialogue, communication most commonly occurs via signaling. Simply put, signaling in crisis management is the act of conveying a message through indirect means. The tools for signaling vary, as does the intended audience and types of messages being communicated. The key question then is how does one read and deliver signals during a crisis?
Fundamentally, there are only two ways to signal: rhetoric and action—or put more simply, what you say and what you do. The trickier part in reading and delivering signals is that the who, the what, and the how all matter in deciphering another party’s communications. Making matters more difficult is that signals can be deliberate or may occur unintentionally.
To help cut through the potential confusion in reading and delivering signals, it is first necessary to identify a baseline for communication that serves as a “control” during a crisis.
Identifying the baseline
All parties to a security crisis have baselines for rhetoric and action before that crisis strikes. The baseline is not necessarily documented, but there will be patterns formed through consistency across eight core elements.
First is the method of communication. Does the party prefer to deliver messages through press releases, social media, interviews, speeches, or other means? Which of those are used most frequently, and under what circumstances?
The second element is tone. Do statements or reports tend to be personalized or formal? Does the party employ threatening rhetoric, or is it usually even keeled? Does it vary?
Third is attribution. In other words, at what level and to which offices are statements and releases attributed? Are things typically done by spokespersons, by high-ranking officials, or via unnamed sources who leak information to media outlets? Are certain officials used as mouthpieces for inflammatory rhetoric while others are reserved for conveying actual policy positions?
The fourth element is theme. What are the common messages that the parties tend to convey? Are there any narrative threads connecting one statement to another?
Fifth is language. Are messages communicated in the primary language of the party, the language of a targeted external audience, or both? Is there a clear distinction between the content of messages published in one language compared to another?
The sixth element is timing. Is there a certain time of day or day of the week when certain types of messages are delivered? Is it done in a routine or ad hoc manner? Does a party tend to attach a particular type of rhetoric or action to specific events? Are there seasonal factors that influence patterns in rhetoric and action?
The seventh element is the intended audience. Messaging could be directed towards the domestic populace, an ally, an adversary, or the international community. This is usually the hardest element to diagnose because signaling is, by definition, indirect. However, analysis of the previous six elements can facilitate one’s assessment of the intended audience.
The final element is activity. What are the party’s routine behaviors? Do they have certain thresholds that bound their actions? Do they privilege diplomatic, economic, or military instruments of power in their activities?
With these eight elements in mind, you can begin to figure out another party’s baseline while understanding your own.
Understanding what to make of another party’s signals during crisis situations relies heavily on observation and analysis. Although it can be complex, there is a four-step method for ensuring the most effective interpretation of what the other side may be communicating.
Step 1: Recognize the other party’s baseline. Consider the eight elements listed above during non-crisis situations to formulate a baseline that serves as your control for comparison during a crisis.
Step 2: Identify deviations from the baseline. Examine the other party’s rhetoric and actions to diagnose any changes across the eight elements based on the situation.
Step 3: Consider the possible interests, constraints, and restraints they may be conveying. Think about the other party’s possible needs and objectives, as well as what they must do or cannot do vis-à-vis a crisis.
Step 4: Determine which of those interests, constraints, and restraints align most closely with the possible signals you observe. Compare the range of potential interests, constraints, and restraints with the eight elements described above to determine what signals the other party may be conveying.
Effective delivery of signals is done by considering the analyst on the other side and thinking about how they may read your rhetoric and actions; after all, signaling only works if you tailor it to how the other side will receive it. There is a three-step method for doing this.
Step 1: Recognize your own baseline. It is necessary to put yourself in the shoes of an analyst from the other side and consider the eight elements listed above as they pertain to your own side’s rhetoric and actions.
Step 2: Determine what interests, constraints, and restraints you wish to convey. People tend to think only of “red lines” in signaling, but effective communication during a crisis requires a party to communicate its needs, objectives, and boundaries.
Step 3: Make deliberate choices based on the eight elements and the deviation from your baseline. After determining what you want to convey, it is necessary to consider how you will do it. This is where the baseline is necessary, because the greater the deviation from the baseline, the more noticeable the signal will be. Also, it is necessary to ensure that you are leveraging the right elements of communication and doing so in a way that does not get misconstrued by the target audience.
A fictional case study
An example is useful in illustrating these concepts in practice. Imagine there are two countries—Westlandia and Eastlandia—that share a disputed border. Both have an agreed-upon number of guard posts facing each other on opposite sides of a de facto boundary line, and their governments have affirmed that they will not conduct any military training within five kilometers of that boundary. By and large, messaging related to border issues comes via formal press statements from their respective Ministries of Defense in their shared language of “Landian.” In that messaging, Westlandia’s Ministry routinely employs hyperbole and threats, while Eastlandia stays measured in its tone.
One day, gunshots ring out from a Westlandian guard post, prompting return fire from Eastlandian forces. Westlandia’s Ministry of Defense immediately posts a statement in both Landian and English on its social media accounts blaming Eastlandia for the incident. The Westlandian government places its border forces on alert status but does not make any substantive changes to its military posture along the boundary.
Meanwhile, the Eastlandian government takes a more robust response. The Foreign Ministry issues an English-language statement of condemnation and accuses Westlandia of attempting to start a border conflict to justify pushing the boundary line further into Eastlandian-administered territory. The Eastlandian military deploys additional forces near the five-kilometer mark from the boundary and begins conducting various training activities. In reply, the Westlandian Ministry of Defense publishes a response in English stating that if the military exercises did not stop, they would be forced to “rain hellfire” upon the other side. The Eastlandian president then issues a statement in Landian declaring that her forces will not back down from a fight, but that they will always privilege the path of peace and dialogue.
With all that in mind, what was being signaled?
Determining potential Eastlandian and Westlandian interests, constraints, and restraints vis-a-vis this scenario would require more information than the example provides, but we can start with three possible objectives for the two sides: (1) escalate to hostilities; (2) de-escalate the crisis; or (3) exploit the situation to achieve some other political gains.
Westlandia’s quick social media post in English following the exchange-of-fire was likely an effort to deflect any potential blame for initiating the confrontation. Had it been a long and formal communique, one might consider the possibility that the incident was premeditated; but in this case, an ad hoc social media post tells a different story.
The fact that Westlandian border forces went on alert but did not receive reinforcements indicates that the government is concerned about the Eastlandian response but are not intending to escalate conventional military confrontation.
Eastlandia’s deployment of additional forces to train along the five kilometer no-training zone rather than inside it signals the intent to conduct a show-of-force rather than direct military escalation.
Eastlandia’s corresponding Foreign Ministry statement is non-standard and indicates the perceived level of seriousness of the incident.
The Westlandian threat was not likely credible owing to three factors: (1) it was not a major departure from the baseline; (2) there were no corresponding military movements to back the threat; and (3) the statement was solely in a foreign language which would allow the Westlandian government to avoid potential audience costs that could be associated with de-escalation.
The Eastlandian president’s message in Landian demonstrates a clear signal to the Westlandian side that the highest level of government is willing to pursue de-escalation.
Real world crisis signaling is more dynamic than this fictional case study, but the fundamental principles apply no matter the complexity. The case of Eastlandia and Westlandia is not without similar precedent throughout world, be it the along the ‘Line of Actual Control’ between China and India, the contested border areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan or Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula. The governments in all those cases have employed signaling at one point or another, some with greater effect than others in managing conflict and tension. For crisis managers it is essential to understand baselines and signals and their function in mitigating conflict. That knowledge can make all the difference between achieving peaceful resolution or enduring unnecessary hostilities.