A Glimpse Into a Public Affairs Scam Session and Some Unsolicited Advice


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I’m regularly tough on the Air Force Public Affairs (PA) community. My personal view is that coverage is not adequately mission focused, that official responses to media and citizen inquiries are overly spun, and that the community spends too much time propagandizing internally rather than telling the stories of airmen.

This doesn’t mean every PA airman or office is part of the problem. Some do great work. It just means that the prevailing approach is missing the mark.

Over the past three years, I’ve tried to engage the PA community in a debate about its practices and priorities. Some members engage in that debate faithfully, agreeing or disagreeing with critiques respectfully and rationally. But too often, members of the community get defensive, reflexively insisting — often without recognizing they’re doing so — that they should operate without critique or accountability. Any problems they do stipulate exist are generally blamed on wayward, wing-wearing commanders misusing the PA capability.

There is some truth to this, especially when it comes to propaganda and carefully vetted media responses. But the reality is that staff and base-level PA managers have more latitude and influence to faithfully and effectively align emphasis and coverage to tell the Air Force story than they claim.

While functional leaders like Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook have considerable power in setting the tone and establishing the priorities governing the PA community, their power is not absolute. PA proponents acknowledge this whenever they tout positive coverage examples that prove Cook’s focus is not dominant across the enterprise.

All of which is to say that to the extent there’s a problem with Air Force PA, it can’t all be blamed on commanders. Some of it lives in the culture of PA itself. Pointing this out repeatedly has made JQP a figure of interest in the community’s internal debates. They’re not sure how to contend with a genuine truth-seeking exercise creating a space for authentic debate among airmen, and they’re sometimes paralyzed by the question of how to adapt their practices to re-capture the part of the Air Force conversation that they’ve noticeably lost.

PA airmen recently struggled with the question within their secret, invitation-only Facebook group, “U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Professionals.” JQP obtained records of this conversation.

Before I detail some of the inputs, savor for a moment the rich irony of the existence of a closed discussion group carrying that label. It explains a large part of the problem — the flawed belief that you can control the message. As PA professional Raymond Hoy recently quipped in response to a story critical of PA, “[t]he Air Force answers to the people, and we’re the ones who represent the Air Force.” Apparently, many believe that representation requires a careful crafting of the truth behind closed doors before it can be shared with its entitled recipients. This is, of course, pure garbage.

A member of the closed group started a conversation thusly:

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Not a bad idea for a discussion. While I might not agree with all of the analysis, the objectives aren’t bad either. The first focuses on PA’s duty to communicate effectively and welcome differing perspectives. The second is more strategic.

The problem with the idea is its framing. The poster suggests there’s a need for a brokered, coordinated event. There isn’t. Senior officials and their representatives are free to engage JQP any time, any day. I regularly address them in posts and welcome their feedback. In fact, it already happens regularly, but not enough and seldom in public.

The responses to this input are fascinating and illustrative. They show a community stupefied into collective catatonia by a confrontation with simple truths and long-overdue critiques.

Let’s take a look.

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This isn’t really an opinion so much as an expression of apathy. Winn vaguely embraces the proposed idea, but doesn’t believe his own leadership has the stomach for it. This is an unsurprising attitude. PA sees itself as the guardian of the service’s public image and is loath to have generals or Chiefs admit to the existence of an important change agent who works outside the system and frequently challenges their assumptions. Even if none of that were true, Winn apparently (and not without foundation) doesn’t believe his leaders would ever reveal themselves as mistake-capable humans open to the ideas of lesser (read that lower-ranking) beings.

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Two major factual problems here. First, no “efforts” have “been made” to invite me into the official Air Force conversation. There have been rumors such “efforts” would be made, but they haven’t materialized. Trust me, I’d have seized on them because my objectives are constructive and not agenda-driven. I‘ve been invited to speak at a few different bases on a few different topics and have had some contact with senior leaders over the past three years, but nothing like what is suggested here.

Second, Mr. Hammond makes an implied assertion of dishonesty that is both unsupported and wrong. JQP frequently passes on stories that lack a proper factual foundation. I do homework. I corroborate. In many cases, I request Air Force comment and sometimes actually get it. I haven’t once had to retract a story or stipulate to a material factual error in three years doing this. To the extent it actually reports anything, PA can’t make that claim. Difference of opinion doesn’t make someone a liar, even if fascist tendencies would argue otherwise.

I do have an agenda, but it’s not the one PA seems to assume. This isn’t about ambushing senior leaders or embarrassing anyone. It’s about pushing the Air Force to reform itself and alter its direction in many different ways. Part of this is about holding senior officials publicly accountable for their actions.

Hammond’s input is typical. He doesn’t want to explicitly take a position, so he takes an implied position and rests it on a personal attack. Fairly useless.

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This input is disappointing for two reasons. First, it frames the idea as an adversarial standoff and only finds merit in it to the extent it promises to backfire on the perceived adversary. This totally misses the point. If we’re to push for greater interaction between JQP and the corporate Air Force, it ought to be about unearthing truths and building understanding … not orchestrating some half-assed version of Frost vs. Nixon.

The second reason it’s disappointing is that I’ve previously built a rapport with SSgt. Maricle and entrusted her with privately rendered comments on Air Force issues, keeping her confidences in return. This is something I will continue to do despite this incident because the principle matters more than the person. But Maricle never bothered to let me know when our rapport dissolved, which it obviously has given her comment. This kind of thing is part of why people don’t trust PA.

Later in the conversation, another poster flat-out states that he himself doesn’t trust PA, and understands why others don’t. Rather than inquire genuinely into the basis of his misgivings, others took an insulting tone, implying he was disloyal. He was, in fact, spot on. PA has a trust deficit with fellow airmen and increasingly with the public. Private scheming sessions aren’t the way to fix that.

Here’s another input worth highlighting.

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I won’t dignify Juan’s whiny rant by addressing all of it. He’s a frequent visitor to JQP’s Facebook feed and never hesitates to register his disapproval, usually in the same tone taken here. He’s another guy who thinks disagreement must make his opponent a liar or a person of low character. Sorta worries me that people who think this way hold positions requiring them to connect with the public.

I will take a moment dismantle his core contention that this community represents a small rag-tag of disgruntled airmen. The JQP blog you’re currently reading will crest around 3.6 million page requests for 2015. This is 360% growth from 2014. Around 1.5 million of those views will have come in the final quarter of this year. Readership has departed planetary orbit and is accelerating, with new monthly records each of the last three months. Turns out there’s a market for honest, no-nonsense, mission-focused, reform-oriented discussion about the noticeably ailing Air Force we all serve.

This isn’t the same dozen people hitting refresh in Mom’s basement. It’s a robust readership. It’s a signal that the message is resonating, and I’d like to think that’s partially because we’ve been factually accurate even when we take contentious or even mildly unfair positions … and we’ve pursued just and worthwhile issues and efforts here far more often than not.

Legislators and their staffers read this blog. So do generals and their staffs. I guarantee you Chiefs are reading it, because they know their airmen are reading it. The private correspondence I get on a daily basis from up, down, and beyond the rank spectrum is considerable. A few dozen times this year, JQP featured on-record quotes from Air Force PA officials, which wouldn’t be happening if they agreed with the erstwhile Juan.

This can no longer be seen as a tiny band of reform-minded contrarians, if ever it could. It’s a legitimate and growing voice on Air Force matters large and small. Ignoring that reality is a big part of how PA found itself running deficits of credibility and relevance the last few years. I’m listening to and giving a voice to and channeling the airmen you’re ignoring and marginalizing.

This is the road to toast for PA, and Fermath apparently wants to continue gleefully navigating it. If I were truly self-interested, I would encourage him and others to continue failing, which only feeds JQP readership and grows this platform. But I actually want what’s best for the Air Force, and that means I want PA to recover rather than collapse. Hence this article.

It should be noted that Juan mainly cares about Tops in Blue, and is undoubtedly wracked with despair at its recently announced demise. Not that his tone differs much from normal.

I give Juan credit, though. He regularly and publicly engages me and his positions don’t change when he discusses them in a private group.

Another poster took issue with him, and I appreciated the way she went about it.

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I can’t make this response much better, and I dare not water down its essential correctness by quarreling with some of its erroneous characterizations. Where Jenny is most right is that this isn’t about individual characters in the debate, it’s about the issues … and by extension about airmen, airpower, and the health and future of the Air Force. I’ve said repeatedly that my objectives overlap almost entirely with those of others who love the service … we just sometimes disagree about how to get there. That disagreement is healthy when we allow ourselves to register it honestly. She clearly gets that, as do many of her teammates.

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This little window into the nethersphere of PA isn’t purely for entertainment value. it’s a way to build understanding about a community with a job that implicates the service’s identity in important ways … a community clearly fractured and ailing, suffering from internal dissonance and frustration but retaining an impulse to do better.

But I reserve my doubts. Having gotten my hands on these screenshots, I reached out privately to a few of the individuals involved, attempting to pull them into discussions about the things they had said. It took only a few minutes for them to react inappropriately, plumbing their private group looking for a mole. Dumb move. My reach into their community is much more considerable than they want to believe.

Within a few hours of my putting a few of these folks on notice, several unsuccessful attempts were made to hack my Facebook account. Coincidence? Hope says yes, common sense says no … and then shakes its head in disappointment. If these inappropriate responses are any indication, this particular PA cabal is less interested in a constructive relationship than it is silencing a critic.

Here’s the real point in all of this. PA is responsible for a critical Air Force function, as its membership knows and often reminds us. They represent the world’s most consequential Air Force. They are responsible to tell the story, to connect with the public, and to safeguard the credibility and image of public officials by giving them sound advice and assisting them with effective communication. To perform this task, PA needs credibility, the trust of its internal and external audiences, and relevance in its messages.

The path to re-instilling these qualities doesn’t run through a private scheming session or a concocted publicity stunt designed to upend an inconvenient citizen who has been forcing the community to work too hard. It runs through the land of adaptation. PA needs to adapt to the reality of the modern conversation.

A recent Pew Research analysis showed that 90% of Americans aged 18-29 use social media, along with 77% of those aged 30-49. Rates are climbing among older age groups as well. Roughly 260,000 of the Air Force’s 307,000 airmen are getting their information online. They’re not waiting for manicured press releases, plodding commander’s calls, or hyper-produced videos. Those are the tools of a century long gone. They’re digesting information at the speed of innovation and using more sources than PA wants to acknowledge.

This means the audience is finding raw, essential truths long before the refined, packaged versions are released by the service’s Cold War era communications apparatus. When audience members then contrast the truth they’ve already processed with the propagandized, careful version from PA and the chain of command, they lose respect for the message as well as those advancing it. The pattern is exacerbated when officials are caught in a say-do gap or a material inaccuracy.

Eventually, airmen and others abandon official messaging altogether, gaining information initiative in the process. Soon, they’re asking new questions and raising new issues at a pace the corporation can’t begin to accommodate, and the pressure of attempting to keep up leads to more communication mishaps. This increases the rate at which trust is hemorrhaged. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it serves as a decent summary of the last several years.

One of my objectives has been to push for and hopefully help catalyze an adaptation to account for this new reality — an adaptation absolutely critical to the Air Force’s maturation in other important ways, both as an American agency and a warfighting organization.

PA is spending too much energy trying to sidestep this adaptation rather than confront it. This is a result of poor leadership, a poor organizational climate, entrenched attitudes, rice bowl politics, and good old fashioned defensiveness. 

My advice for PA is to stop wasting energy on secret scam sessions about how to avoid adapting. Stop worrying about who is speaking out of turn. Stop having a private conversation about whether to have a conversation and instead just have it. Telling the truth and debating opinions in earnest is not that difficult. If you don’t feel free to do so, that should be the first issue you attack with your leaders.

Tether yourselves to something common and work through the problems confronting your community in an honest way. I suggest tethering to the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember. Don’t assume airmen are too stupid to see the difference between the unvarnished truth and the politically concocted messaging that emerges from the propaganda oven. Relocate your affinity for straight talk. Follow the orders your leaders give, but never fail to illuminate when those orders are misguided. When you know a message is tone deaf, say so. Prioritize more effectively and tell the story.

Oh, and whenever you care to debate, I and the other members of this community will be here. We’re not waiting for an engraved invitation, and neither should you.

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