There is no concrete thing in the world–like a granny smith apple, or a suspension bridge–to which the term “strategic narrative” refers. Nevertheless, there are an increasing number of mentions of this abstraction out there, which means that a shared definition is beginning to form in the collective minds of different groups, so perhaps we are due for a strategic narrative definition.
Existing literature and commentary, as per a Google search of the term, produces two different–if overlapping–definitions “strategic narrative.”
Strategic Narrative in International Relations
For one community, “strategic” refers to the original meaning of the term to refer to military and political objectives. In ancient Greek, “strategos” is a compound term that means commander or leader of an army. “Strategic” materials are items needed to prosecute a war. Strategy is a subdiscipline of military science that focuses on planning war.
As a result, a “strategic narrative” can be understood as the story that a nation must tell itself, and the world, to wage a war or to maintain its competitive advantage in the international system. This is what the term means in the widely circulating document, “A National Strategic Narrative, written by two members of the American military. Anne Marie Slaughter, who introduces the document, defines a strategic narrative in terms of the competitive interests of a nation.
A narrative is a story. A national strategic narrative must be a story that all Americans can understand and identify with in their own lives. America’s national story has always see-sawed between exceptionalism and universalism. We think that we are an exceptional nation, but a core part of that exceptionalism is a commitment to universal values – to the equality of all human beings not just within the borders of the United States, but around the world. We should thus embrace the rise of other nations when that rise is powered by expanded prosperity, opportunity, and dignity for their peoples.
In one definition, then, “strategic narrative” refers to the use of “narrative” as an element of (national) strategy. This definition can be used in other organizations grounded in developing strategy.
In other professional disciplines, however, the concept of narrative, rather than strategy, grounds the definition.
Strategic Narrative in Public Relations
In public relations and related communications fields, the concept of a vehicle that conveys a message or idea is basic. “Message” is a traditional way of referring to a communication vehicle, but whereas a message can be conveyed in a bullet point, a narrative–a story–requires action, and drama and engaging characters. The idea of narratives as a way of communicating with consumers, or voters, or other constituencies has become popular. There is an entire sub-field now called “narrative marketing,” in which PR firms try to drive business growth through a “story-based perspective” A Canadian firm called Narrative Advocacy Media uses the premise to guide their entire marketing, branding and PR practice.
A strategic narrative, for communication practitioners, is an organizational narrative that has been planned to convey strategically meaningful elements about the organization’s identity and intentions. Some firms use the term narrative without really meaning “story” but rather simply to mean a descriptive text that uses words, instead of numbers.
The national security and business and PR understanding of “strategic narrative” overlap in important ways. All of these disciplines understand that the stories we tell and enact–through processes and actions–in our lives as social, political, creatures, can either be random and unthought, or they can be strategic and we can map them to goals we would like to achieve, and create them as spaces to be shared with the publics and audiences we’d like to reach.