JQP obtained the Air Force’s internal talking points (pictured above — click for more detail) designed to guide both internal messaging and external public relations in advance of the July 4th holiday. The guidance went out to all major commands for distribution across the force about a week before Independence Day.
Offline, JQP heard from a few commanders who chafed at the guidance, and indicated that their relatively senior bosses had too. It’s not hard to imagine why.
First of all, it’s tough to think why the service would need a set of scripted talking points to tell itself how to think and what to say on Independence Day. That’s farcical.
Second, the structure and format of the document are somewhere between problematic and unintentionally comical. Good leaders, unduly unaccepting of compulsory nonsense, took note of this, seething and bristling as they paced to the shredder to destroy the inane mumbo-jumbo deposited upon them from above by Public Affairs (PA).
One problem was the scant use of just 6 lines to discuss the fundamental meaning of Independence Day itself. Talking points are not needed for this day, but if you’re going to produce them, it’s advisable to make it count by telling audiences something they don’t know. Something that would be appropriate coming from an Air Force leader rather than a junior high civics teacher.
Another problem was the persistent use of throwaway rhetoric that no self-respecting leader would be caught dead parroting. Public Affairs wizards “gifted” the chain of command with a 20-line bowl of buzzword salad, replete with such gems as “tradition of honor,” … “diversity” … “innovation” … “profound sense of dignity” … “Aerospace Nation” … and “diverse” (yes, again). True to its checklist tradition, the document pretty much touched all the contemporary political bases, throwing in some Orwellian management science claptrap as a dressing of sorts.
Whatever the taxpayer paid for this, it was too much, and the acidic irony of picking up such an undeserved tab in order to unwittingly augment the diminishment of our most bedrock celebration is corrosively painful. If people with common sense were vampires, this sheet of paper would burn and blind them on sight.
Why? Because none of this has much to do with the Air Force’s peculiar contributions to national defense or the relationship of those contributions to the Fourth of July. Sure, there are a few useful data points buried beneath this avalanche of gibberish, but not only would a person need the patience of a saint and a literary power shovel to unearth them, but s/he’d have to lack the common sense to stop reading when encountering something manifestly stupefying. This document cries out “please, stop reading me” … and if one keeps reading, it screams “please burn me and flush the ashes.”
But wait, there’s more. As a chaser for this turpentine-laced, 26-line elixir of garbled gobbledegook, PA gurus bequeathed to their captive audiences a whopping 15 lines of text on their favorite subject:
airpower, airmen, families, bands.
Unable to free themselves from a deeply-ingrained fetish for the ceremonial trappings of seniority and abetted by the shamelessly obvious influence of a public affairs director who started her career as a band member, senior-most officials continue to tolerate and even encourage a corporate (used purposely) communications climate marked by a wildly disproportionate focus — in both inward and outward facing communications — on the 605 airmen who play music for a living rather than plying an airpower trade.
605. Out of 317,000. That’s 0.19% of all airmen, and they get 15 lines of attention in an official document guiding the service’s discussion of American Independence. (Actually, they get 16 lines, because it’s not just any airmen conveying a “profound sense of dignity” … it’s Air Force bands creating and conveying it). They are capable and talented musicians, and they deserve appropriate praise and credit for their individual efforts in representing the service. But 605 … out of 317,000 …
The chain of failure here is something close to criminally pathetic. Someone created this. Someone else approved it. Others acquiesced and still others authorized it for distribution. No one, not one of the multiple general officers involved in the process of sending this tripe to the field, bothered to obstruct it and insist on something more appropriate. Something that would affirm all airmen, or at least more airmen.
This document is an insult to the service’s operational airmen and those who embrace the full obligations of military duty to support and enable them. It’s especially injurious to the 22,000 airmen deployed over the July 4th holiday and barely given passing mention. On their behalf, I make the declaration I believe they would make: what a monumental heap of bullshit this is.
Such an obvious display of communication and prioritization malpractice would certainly earn nothing but scornful rejection from mission-oriented senior officials … right?
Well, let’s just see.
Here are a few exhibits from the Secretary of the Air Force’s Facebook feed:
July 2nd, a post featuring the Band of Mid-America.
July 3rd, a post featuring the US Air Force Academy Band.
July 4th … finally … a post that at least mentions the 22,000 airmen deployed doing the work of the Air Force on Independence Day. Of course, it was a direct lift from the Public Affairs Guidance requiring no original thought, and the accompanying graphic conspicuously features the “Honor, Inspire, Celebrate” tagline comprising the headings of the official point paper. Not exactly heartfelt, but at least it got beyond band love.
But then SECAF got back on message, closing out the big day with, you guessed it, another band mention.
What about CMSAF Cody? Well …
At first blush, his words sound lovely and inspiring. Until you realize that the “so widely diverse, yet so deeply committed” phrase is a direct, word-for-word lift from the official point paper … and that the video he chose to underline his stolen idea features, you guessed it, the Air Force Band of Mid-America.
To be fair, Cody also made two other posts around the same time, and they focused on his visits with security forces members on the Korea DMZ. If only he’d stuck to that mission focus and skipped the obligatory talking head silliness, he’d have enhanced his stature with airmen rather than harming it.
General Welsh, for his part, steered clear of band references. He made a single post:
Yes, he aped SECAF’s use of the stock graphic with cool catchwords provided by PA. But he also used some of his own words rather than the tepid plate of soft-boiled garbage served up for him. At least one of the service’s Top Three understood that being authentic on Independence Day would mean something to the airmen and Americans in the audience.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
An old boss of mine used to apply what he called the “Aliens Watching From Space” test. We get caught up in the details of things sometimes and lose track of how our actions appear to external observers … but the essential truths about our lives emerge when we back out and look at the overall patterns governing our activities. I’ve often made the joke that aliens watching from space would think dogs are in charge of the Earth … we pamper them, let them lead us around on walks, and clean up after them. Not uncommonly, we give our pets more attention than our fellow human beings.
What would aliens watching from space conclude about the Air Force from observing its Independence Day communications? That bands are in charge. That they form the core of our national contributions and are our most important link to the public we serve. That we cherish them above all else. That we believe playing music is the key to enemy capitulation … or perhaps, more mildly, that we can take our mission for granted while focusing on peripheral matters, and that it will still get accomplished because we’ve hired people who don’t know how to fail. That we’re not so much an air force as a band that also has airplanes.
That’s what it looks like, Air Force senior officials, and it’s unconscionable.
But one peg below unconscionability is absurdity. It’s absurd to believe that airmen (the ones doing the fighting, the ones deploying, and the ones getting figuratively kicked in the junk by one bad policy after another) will be inspired or motivated by wooden talking points demonstrating obvious inauthenticity. Leadership is, at its core, about building relationships. That only happens when the leader is willing to be unguarded and to speak from his or her heart and mind … rather than showing the ability to copy and paste from a script full of lukewarm propaganda.
As a cohort, the current group of senior Air Force leaders is disinterested in genuine communication with airmen. Some will say they don’t need to communicate with airmen because they’re senior executives. Perhaps that’s right. If it is, perhaps Welsh, James, and Cody should take a less prominent role in talking with airmen and let fielded commanders and NCOs reassume their natural roles. Perhaps they should get the Air Staff out of the service’s day-to-day business and put the execution of both mission and administration back in decentralized hands where they belong.
But if these so-called leaders insist on communicating, they’ve got to do better. Whether what they have to say is scripted, improvised, rendered in haiku format, or encoded in the bars of music endlessly belted out by the 10 bands on the service’s record label, it must do a better job of including, mentioning, calling attention to, and celebrating the 99.8% of airmen who comprise the spine, limbs, heart, and brain of airpower. It can’t always be about the glitter sprinkled on the face of the service … and especially not on a day that celebrates the American liberty secured by men of action. Men who made no mention of harps, fifes, or bugles in the timeless words they commended to human history.