Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Personal

What is the face of the Air Force?

Your first thought might be a plane. Our technology and equipment have been major communication points down through the years. And, why not? We can all picture a squadron of
B-17s lumbering toward a target over Europe, or the F-15 Eagle dominating the skies over Iraq, or B-52s in Linebacker II bombing North Vietnam to the peace table and providing the sound and quake of hope to our POWs in Hanoi.

But the real face of the Air Force is Airmen. The word Airman is a proper noun just like Soldier, Sailor and Marine. Unfortunately, and I don't mean to be negative, we don't always get to shine the light on our Airmen and so we become just another face in the crowd.

Our Airmen have great stories to tell. Check out this NPR story by Tom Bowman on a Combat Search and Rescue mission in Afghanistan. The story centers around the fact that we've left no one behind in Afghanistan, dead or alive. This isn't a story about the Pave Hawk helicopter or the effectiveness of Night-Vision Goggles. Instead it's a look at how Airmen risked their lives deep in enemy territory to recover a Soldier that gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country. That's the face of the Air Force.

Too often though we fail to get out of our own way. For example many Airmen are either forbidden or unwilling to use their full names when talking to reporters. That has kept us out of some national-level stories of late.

For example, USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook, on a recent trip to Afghanistan couldn't use quotes provided by Airmen because they would only provide call-signs. These were great quotes about how the Air Force avoids collateral damage and avoids killing civilians in air strikes. That story, an important one for us, didn't get told.

Airmen and their stories are our key to success in a global information environment that operates at the speed of heat. If the Air Force wants to be competitive then we have to make it personal.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What are we worth

My advice as a career Air Force Public Affairs Officer is to be "measured" in how we as a military service react to stories in the news. Unless it's dead-wrong or ridiculously sensational it's usually best to just leave it alone. However, I felt it necessary to comment on a recent piece about public relations in the Department of Defense. Now, this article had the bounce of a water balloon but it pains me when someone lumps mission areas into a loose confederation and then tries to make a story of it all.

AP reporter Chris Tomlinson published last week about how much money over the last five years the Department of Defense has spent on public relations. Its certainly a worthwhile effort to examine how the government spends it's money. However, the Tomlinson story is troublesome because the article paints recruiting and advertising, Psychological Operations and Public Affairs with the same brush. That makes for a bad picture. These missions are definitely separate from each other and they each deliver different results for America.

Recruiting and Advertising.
In FY08 the Army spent $283 million, the Navy spent $189 million, the Marine Corps spent $138 million and the Air Force budgeted $36 million and spent an additional $25 million on the "Above All" advertising campaign. That's a total of $671 million. It's a lot of money but according to the Joint Advertising, Market Research & Studies group there are significant recruiting challenges:

*Only 12 percent of youth have a propensity to serve in the military--the lowest since tracking began in 1975 and 8 percent lower than 1999 when the Air Force last missed it's recruiting goal.

*Propensity of adults to recommend military service as employment for youth continues to decline.

*53 percent of youth ages 16-21 are ineligible for military service due to medical, moral, or legal reasons.

*Of the 26 percent of youth qualified for military service between the ages of 17-24 approximately 42 percent of those enroll in college within one year after graduating from high school. Since 1980, the number of youth enrolling in college has increased 35% and that trend is expected to continue.

*Only 5% of eligible youth age 17-24 not attending college have the aptitude for high-tech AF jobs, and the other services want them also.

This is an important mission that costs big dollars because the services have to go where the kids are these days--cable TV and the Internet. But, with some exceptions, that mission is virtually divorced from the traditional Public Affairs missions of the services.

Psychological Operations.
The Tomlinson article also included Psychological Operations with public relations. That's a loose fit at best. PSYOPs are conducted by specially trained people and units to ensure certain audiences get the truth. They are not done in the United States and they are not done, as a matter of course, by traditional Public Affairs Officers. I have worked with PSYOP experts in a couple of different deployed locations. While most of the time our messaging was the same, their means of delivering the message and their target audiences were different than mine.

Public Affairs.
The Tomlinson article states that the Defense Department will employ about 27,000 people for recruiting and advertising, PSYOP and Public Affairs. That may be true but he definitely didn't ask anyone how it's going in Air Force Public Affairs. Since 1989 we've lost 310 officers and 891 enlisted professionals. This personnel implosion has occurred while the global information environment has supernova'd. Today, we have well over 120 million blogs, news is quickly moving to the Internet and because of that breaking news happens at any time and it doesn't wait for the morning paper to hit your doorstep. That makes my job very challenging and today we have very few people to actually get the mission done.

I focus my efforts on the Air Force Public Affairs core competencies of Trusted Counsel to Leaders, Airman Morale and Readiness, Public Trust and Support and Global Influence and Deterrence. That's done through engaging Airmen, the public and the media so they can better understand our mission and how we protect the American way of life--including a free press. Tomlinson took a broad swing at the Army/Air Force Hometown News Service in his article. This organization lets people know in hometowns across America what their Soldiers and Airmen are doing to protect the nation. It's not propaganda.

It's a time of war Tomlinson points out. Americans deserve to know how their sons and daughters are prepared for it and how we are spending their tax dollars. What are we worth? If we can't do that in war time, then when can we?