An Interview with Mr. Brett Bruen
On March 13, 2019, Mr. Brett Bruen spoke at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on his theory of “counter-crisis management,” which he uses in his work as President of the Global Situation Room to identify vulnerabilities and develop reputational countermeasures for organizations operating in crisis-affected parts of the world. His interview was conducted by Samantha Chen, Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.
FF: You served as the Director of Global Engagement at the White House under President Obama. Could you tell us about that experience, and some of the most impactful moments or lessons that informed your decision to found the Global Situation Room?
BB: It was a more hopeful time. We were looking for ways to deepen our engagement with the world, whether it was engaging with the next generation of young leaders, sparking entrepreneurial opportunities, or looking to expand international education. We believe that it was an investment in a future that would pay dividends for American influence and prosperity. Interestingly, many of those programs continue. Ivanka Trump went to India for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and Secretary Pompeo was hosting an event at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kansas. It’s encouraging to see those programs continue, even if they may have been reduced and the policy of the current administration has redirected to a more isolationist focus. These programs will allow us to keep, and perhaps even to cultivate, ties that will be important in a post-Trump world.
Founding the Global Situation Room came about because I was spending so much time with entrepreneurs that I think I got infected with the entrepreneurial spirit. I think that applying the tactics and tradecraft of diplomacy to helping companies and organizations navigate the complexity of today’s world is a comparative advantage, because there aren’t enough firms that provide a global skillset that can help companies seamlessly move around the world and navigate any ensuing risks. You see a lot of companies that focus on different countries, but they don’t connect that work and provide a comparative offering that can help companies to really understand how these pieces fit together.
We are especially focusing on the risk and crisis management work. I don’t think that the tools of crisis management have kept up: they are designed for an era where we had more time, when we had the luxury of working on one problem at a time. Today, companies have to be able to get out and engage, rather than hide under the desk and wait for the storm to pass. We’re focused on helping them do that.
FF: Can you talk a little bit more about what counter-crisis management theory is and what was the impetus behind developing this theory? How did it impact your work at the White House?
BB: When I got to the White House, we faced a series of crises around the world, and I had just come from working in the field. I spent the first decade-plus of my career working in countries in crisis and conflict. To come into the White House and not see the kind of capabilities to respond to these crises surprised me, and I began thinking about how we could develop better tools to be more prepared.
When I transitioned to the private sector, I was surprised to see that it was even further behind than the government. I worked to take the skills and strategies that we were refining at the White House and apply them to the kinds of risks that companies were facing. In a number of cases, it has been remarkable to see the results that we’ve been able to deliver by helping companies more clearly identify issues, and earlier. Thinking about the tools they need, we can divide them into two groups. One is infrastructure, or the kinds of materials and capabilities can you prepare ahead of time. These could range from creating partnerships with key organizations, to developing the story of your organization and the importance of the work and the people that contribute to it, all the way to thinking about how you generate reservoirs of goodwill with strategic groups that are going to allow you to have the forgivability not only to survive, but to thrive in crisis. The other is the idea that you could build a countermeasure—a program that would be deployed around a crisis to not only allow your company to survive that tough time, but to seize the next opportunity into which you’re looking to transition.
FF: Adding onto your idea about forgivability, do you think there’s a limit to the amount of forgivability that an organization or country can have?
BB: Forgivability is very easy to talk about, but it can be very hard to develop. It requires companies or countries to be willing to confront not only what is positive, but also what could be problematic. But, we’ve seen numerous cases, whether it’s Apple or Airbnb, where companies have managed to stockpile so much forgivability that they have been able to survive threats that would have debilitated, if not destroyed, other companies. It’s not something that you can have too much of. Just like some companies try to figure out how to gain more market share, companies should also consider how to conquer more of the forgiveness market in a way that will give them a comparative advantage.
FF: Do you think there are differences in responding to longer-term crises, such as the one in Yemen, versus responding to immediate crises, such as the one in Venezuela?
BB: In both cases, there is a need to respond earlier, which opens up more options. For crises that have dragged on for an extended period of time, it becomes more difficult to engage in the process of evolution because things have become so deeply entrenched. What I would say is that it is never too late. Even in a situation like Yemen, it becomes more important for us to find a way to reframe this issue and to find the future, because people are so focused on the problems of the moment. You’re ideally looking to introduce a new frame that allows people to see the possibilities of the future.
If we stay stuck on this dynamic of what has been the lens of looking at this problem that’s existed for so long, we’re never going to resolve this crisis or get countries to the stage where they’ve moved beyond the danger zone. Often, an international solution is imposed or comes in, and it is really just putting a Band-Aid on a much deeper problem. If we can focus not just on conflict resolution but also on the creation of real progress, prosperity, and new possibilities, that’s much more sustainable.
FF: How do you think the United States can more effectively respond to the threat from information campaigns, such as those coming from Russia and other countries? And how can the United States better take advantage of strategic communications to compete?
BB: First, I would say that the U.S. government is not doing nearly enough to track threats. We do not have any centralized capability to follow them, whether it’s Russia, Iran, China, or non-state actors, and what they’re doing in this space. We need to develop that capability. We need to encourage other countries to develop that capability and then centralize the monitoring. We know that the Russians will start a pilot project in the Balkans or in other parts of Eastern Europe, such as the Baltics, and then they migrate across Western Europe and then come here to the United States.
The second thing we ought to do is create more defensive capabilities. We’re entering the 2020 elections—if a congressional campaign or a presidential campaign notices a concerning series of social media posts or activist activities on the ground, who are they supposed to call? They can call the FBI, but the FBI is not going to be able to go to Moscow and break up that cell. We have to create resources within the government to support both candidates, as well as companies and other organizations. The last, and I think the most controversial, of my ideas, is that we create offensive capabilities that would serve as deterrents to tell Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran that, if you engage in this kind of information warfare, we will respond in kind. Not necessarily with propaganda, but perhaps with transparency initiations or public information campaigns that make clearer to their people the nature of their regime and the kinds of illicit activities with which they’re involved. A lot of these governments that are engaged in this kind of behaviors are actually pretty vulnerable to public exposure and it’s a tool that we should use more often.
FF: What advice would you give to Fletcher students who are interested in pursuing careers in crisis response or strategic communications?
BB: Sadly, this is an industry that will continue to grow, and students should be thinking about how they can help companies, organizations, and governments to be better prepared for the regularity of risk. One of the recommendations I had for students earlier was to develop a solution, a counter-measure, for one of the problems that a future employer is likely to face. So, when you go in for an interview, you can propose a solution to a problem about which they are worried. It will demonstrate the kind of thinking that a lot of companies and organizations are looking for these days. There are many people who are able to talk about what worked in the past. There are fewer who are coming in with new ideas and with capabilities that enable companies to be much more proactive and agile with these risks.
Image: Charge de Police
Courtesy of Sylvain Szewczyk / Flickr
Brett Bruen is the founder and president of the Global Situation Room, a consulting firm built on the experience of former American ambassadors and senior government officials that provides a range of international public affairs services. A specialist in using strategic communications to influence the course of crisis and conflict, Mr. Bruen created some of the government’s most innovative international programs for reaching new audiences around the world.
Mr. Bruen is a former U.S. Diplomat who served as Director of Global Engagement at the White House. As a diplomat, he served in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea, Iraq, Venezuela, Argentina, Zambia, and Eritrea. He serves as an adjunct faculty member of the Federal Executive Institute, where he trains senior U.S. Government leaders on strategy and world affairs.