Public affairs pros: If the ailing economy has you worried about your future, have no fear. No, it's not the shield of government job security emboldening me to make such a claim. It's the fact that people in positions of authority continue to make poor decisions with respect to public perception. In November, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler assured us we will always have a job when they flew to Washington on private jets and asked Congress to hand over taxpayer money to bail out the ailing car companies.
I'm confident each of the three automakers employed a staff of highly skilled and well-paid PR pros. My only question is did they consult them? We might never know, although an exposé from major media titled, “What were they thinking?” wouldn't surprise me.
The issue here is perception. Any consideration of the current environment and how it would affect their communication goals would have raised a red flag. To assume the benefit of the doubt from the public, especially among senior leaders, is to accept significant risk to mission accomplishment.
For public affairs officers, this poses a significant challenge. Senior leaders face day-to-day decisions that call for thorough research and concentration. Though they read into the media environment more than any other generation of military leaders, they don't always have their finger on the pulse of the public. It's our job to constantly assess the environment and shape the communication strategy accordingly. To do this, we have to do all the things we're trained to do as PAOs, such as monitoring the media and interacting with the community. But if we are truly strategic communicators, we have to get out of the mindset of only doing “PA-work;” our future as individuals and an industry as a whole counts on it.
I wonder if any of the CEOs had their communicators sit in on their meetings to plan the trip to Washington. Many might scoff at the idea, seeing it as a logistics meeting with no PA play. This happens often in Air Force PA circles – I'm guilty of it myself: “Hey, if there's not a press release involved, I'm not needed, right?” Wrong. The forward-thinking communicator might contemplate, “Wow, there's a lot of public interest in this bailout. Maybe we should put together a strategic communications plan for the trip!” And unfortunately, he'd still be off target. The trip itself was strategic communications. The timing, method, location, and hundreds of other factors of that trip to Washington were all details that deserved thorough PAO scrutiny and input, as if it was a giant, jet-powered press release speeding toward the capital.
I'll add a caveat to my suggestion regarding the future employment of PAOs. Senior leaders and executives have paid close attention to the coverage of the automakers' debacle. Most, if not all, have asked themselves if they too are overlooking some seemingly unimportant detail that could prove damning in the public eye and have such disastrous effects on their objective. They should learn from this and so should we as communicators. Our ability to adapt individually and as a career field, and break out of the mold of traditional PAO will have direct bearing on our future relevance and contribution to our Air Force.
Maj. Allen Herritage is director of public affairs for the Alaskan Command at United States Air Force.