Friday, February 6, 2009

My Top Ten

Below are the top ten things I have learned after nearly 24 years as an Air Force Public Affairs Officer. I hope there are some lessons that you can also use.

10. Never answer the phone after 3:30 on Friday--it can only be bad news.
I passed someone in the hall this morning and she said "It's Friday." That has a different connotation for me. Too many times in too many places the worst dilemmas have occurred late on a Friday afternoon when many of the "experts" we need to get help from have already departed for the weekend.

9. Every job is a PA job.
No matter where I've been, no matter what rank I am wearing, invariably people will come up to me and either say "I'm glad I don't have your job," or "I could never do your job." In fact, every Airman does my job. Just wearing the uniform communicates. The Air Force's best stories are about it's people. My job is to help them tell theirs.

8. The office symbol is PA not AP.
One of my biggest obstacles over the years has been getting Airmen I serve with in the same unit to talk to me about what they're doing. Many felt, because I was the PA, that I had a direct conduit to the media and that what they said to me would be quoted back in the morning paper. When I was the Chief of PA at Bitburg Air Base, Germany the fire marshal would always go silent when I walked up to his mobile command post during a Disaster Response Group exercise. He knew where the fire was but he never saw the light.

7. Questions don't matter, answers do.
We very seldom see or hear the question when we read a newspaper report or watch a TV news story. It's the answer that makes the story. This is one of my foundational points when I conduct media training for Airmen. Many are nervous about what questions a reporter might ask. For the most part I'm not concerned about the question. My goal, no matter the question, is to deliver a PGM--Precision Guided Message--so our real audience, the public, understands and appreciates our mission. We have to always be prepared with a message and know how to bridge to it no matter the question. We can't control the question; we have absolutely total control of the answer.

6. If you worry about it; IT won't happen.
This is somewhat counter to the faux self-actionalized people who like to say "Don't sweat the small stuff. It's all small stuff." What I've learned is that when your gut tells you something is going to be an issue then you need to start focussing on that possibility. If you can keep IT (whatever IT is) from happening then you've done your job. That doesn't mean bad news won't happen and won't be reported but you can keep that bad news from becoming an issue unto itself.

5. Routinely take the Page 2 test.
Base newspapers have what we call a Masthead and it's usually located at the bottom of Page 2. The Masthead shows the names of the people who are responsible for publishing the paper. Unless you're the Wing Commander your name isn't on top of the Masthead. My first mission as a PA is to provide trusted counsel to leaders. It's up to the leaders to take my advice. If they don't that doesn't mean I'm wrong and that they're idiots. It just means they want to go in a different direction. That's why they're leaders. State your case and then salute smartly. If you can't do that then you need to find something else to do with your life.

4. Separate your ego from your position.
This is a great lesson I learned from General Ed Eberhart when he was the commander at Air Combat Command. His point--not every battle is worth fighting. For those that are you may not win. It's not about you. It is about what's best for the Air Force.

3. How YOU react to a situation, dilemma, crisis or issue is a reflection of YOU, not the situation, dilemma, crisis or issue.
This is much easier said than done especially when we're tired and worn out because Air Force careers these days resemble a "sprintathon." Imagine having to run an entire marathon at a full-out sprint and your life depended on it. That's where we are. So each of us must rely heavily on those core AF values of Integrity First, Service before Self and Excellenc in All We Do.

2. If you want something done good and fast it takes two people; one to do it good and one to do it fast.
Sometimes we need things fast. That's ok, but it's rarely as good as it can be when you have the time to give it your best.

1. Perfection is the goal but most of the time good enough is better.
At some point you just have to pull the trigger. Give it your best shot!

Monday, February 2, 2009

We Need to Talk

This is probably what we call in the Air Force a BFO--a Blinding Flash of the Obvious--but how we communicate has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. We in the Air Force have some catching up to do.

For the last 18 months my stump speech on the speaking circuit to whomever will listen goes something like this:

*We're in a communication revolution that started in the early 1980s and is in afterburner in 2009. I don't know where we are in the life-cycle of this communication revolution but I do know that it's not over and some incredible things are on the horizon. The revolution started when we evolved from IBM Selectrics to word processors and eventually computers that linked us to the rest of the world. And, let's not forget the wall-bound telephone has given way to cell phones and now the iPhone which lets us connect with anyone, or anything, almost anywhere.

*Technology wrought from the communication revolution has dramatically changed how we receive information and how we pass that information on to others. Check out Jeff Greenfield's piece on CBS Sunday Morning that aired Feb. 1. Mr. Greenfield clearly and succinctly recounts the changes in the communication environment over just the last five years. He says the revolution has been so dramatic that the word "change" just doesn't do justice to describe what has taken place.

*The communication revolution has also caused the business of the media to change dramatically. For the last 18 months I've predicted that by 2015 there will only be four printed newspapers left in America: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the USA Today and the Washington Post. They're just too expensive to print and deliver and readers are going on-line to get the specific information they want from the sources they want to read. Just take a look at the Romenesko column and you'll see the media business is in dire straits.

The technology is designed to work for us. Gone are the days when we had to wait for the morning paper or the evening news to get caught up. Now we control what information we want to receive, when we want to get it, how we want to get it and we can pass it on to others we know are interested.

We have to make a few adjustments if the Air Force is going to stay "in formation" with regard to the changes in the communication environment. First, corporately we need to embrace the change. Many AF folks won't even be able to view the CBS news piece I linked to above because their work computers are blocked from accessing media sites. Secondly, Airmen at all levels must be armed with ROI--Rules of Information--so that they are cleared and available to engage the public. Thirdly, we in the Public Affairs career field need to merge our writing, video and photo capabilities and produce Internet-ready packages that communicate in ways the public wants to receive information.

The consequences are serious if we don't engage; our Air Force will be divorced from the national policy debate and others will define our capabilities and relevance.

The Air Force must have an enduring commitment to communicate with the public it serves. If they don't know, they won't care and we won't matter.