Air Force takes flight with PR restructure

An increased reliance on social media epitomizes the military branch's new public affairs strategy

After 9/11, the United States Air Force reorganized its public affairs division to focus less on long-term strategic planning and more on a communications effort that could support a war.

The change triggered an ongoing restructuring that allowed the Air Force to evaluate its messaging and the way it communicates both with airmen and the American public.

“When we started this restructure, we wanted to see what capabilities we needed to operate in a 21st century communications environment,” says Col. Mike Caldwell, acting director for the Air Force's Office of Public Affairs. “The direct result of that effort was to redesign how we do public affairs in the Air Force.”

In 2006, the Air Force leadership reinstated the strategic planning function and added a research and analysis branch.

“The strategic communications organization gave us that ability to do the long looks out and strategic planning, research, and analysis that we had not been doing since September 11,” Caldwell says.

The research arm also offered some insight into the ways that the Air Force needed to update its communications tactics. A team reviewed other military public affairs structures, as well as the way that companies structure their corporate communications departments.

“I would say we didn't have that ability to really assess how well we were doing with our messaging,” says Maj. Gen. Darren McDew, former deputy director for the Office of Public Affairs, who became the vice director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in February. (The Joint Chiefs advise the President.)

“Everyone had a feel in this community for how to communicate with airmen and the public. That was really how we operated, with experience and a lot of tried-and-true methods that had been passed along through the years and had been trained into the culture.”

The Air Force's new media division is a part of the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, a separate department that includes the Air Force's photographers and videographers. Long-term plans for the Office of Public Affairs include the addition of social media professionals across each of its divisions.

In November 2008, the Air Force completed a restructure of the Office of Public Affairs, which now houses four divisions: media operations, engagement, strategy and assessment (which houses research), and requirement and development.

The result, Caldwell says, is a robust public affairs office with about 100 employees that can provide research, planning, execution, and evaluation, as well as traditional public affairs services.

Through its research and analysis branch, the Air Force found it needed greater social media capabilities to reach airmen, so it launched two blogs, Air Force Live and From an Air Force Colonel, in the past three months. McDew says they also realized a need for greater public education about who airmen are and what the Air Force does.

The team aggressively pitches stories about the Air Force mission as a means to better communicate with its various audiences. It also looks at ways to engage think tanks, editorial boards, Op-Ed writers, and academia to educate them about Air Force issues, he adds.

But, more important than the division changes in the Air Force's public affairs office has been the opportunity for the division to evaluate where it is and plan for the future. With that came the understanding that the public affairs office needs to evaluate where it is so that it can remain as fresh as possible.

McDew says the office has plans for 60-day, 120-day, and six-month reviews for the most recent restructuring to look at its effectiveness.

“What did we do?... Where do we need to adjust along the margins?” he says. “Hopefully it's just along the margins, but if it's a whole new restructure, then we need to do that... We're now open to adjusting every six months to a year... to fit the new environment.”

At a glance
Organization: United States Air Force
Leader: Gen. Norton A. Schwartz
Headquarters: Arlington, VA
Key Trade Titles: Defense News, Government Executive, Popular Science, Congressional Quarterly, Aviation Week
Comms Budget: $8 million
Communications Team: Col. Mike Caldwell, acting director, Office of Public Affairs; Col. Denny Layendecker, commander, The United States Air Force Band; Col. Tyrone Woodyard, vice commander, 42nd Air Base Wing; Col. Les Kodlick, chief of public affairs, US Strategic Command; Col. Kathleen Cook, commander, 90th Mission Support Group; Col. Eric Schnaible, director of public affairs, Air Combat Command

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