This workshop was initiated at the request of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force (CSAF) Gen. Mark Welsh and prompted by several ongoing concerns he has regarding communication across the Air Force. Gen. Welsh expressed those concerns in person to the workshop participants. In summary, they are as follows:
- The CSAF has found difficulty in getting information from his level to wing commanders and, in turn, to other supervisors and Airmen in general.1 As a result, too few senior leaders and supervisors receive the information from the CSAF and Air Staff.
- The CSAF has also found difficulty in communicating to the American people the value of the Air Force and the complexity of the mission that the Air Force accomplishes on a routine basis.
- Finally, the CSAF is concerned about inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading outside information published about the Air Force that is often read and believed by Airmen.
During the course of the 3-day workshop, common messages, or themes, appeared as a result of various presentations and resulting dialogue among the participants. Each theme represents an integrated summary of the presentations and discussion. They should not be construed as reflecting consensus or endorsement by the committee, the workshop participants, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Supporting details precede each theme in the report.
Gen. Welsh recognizes that four key characteristics of communication within a large organization are clarity, reach, speed, and impact—with the latter being perhaps the most important but also the most difficult to measure. He noted that effective communication must link words with actions. At the same time, it must be as clear and transparent as policy and security will allow.
Official U.S. Air Force (USAF) communication channels today, he said, include base newsletters, weekly guidance issued by the Public Affairs (PA) office, press releases, and the AF.mil website. The USAF relies heavily
1 Because of the breadth of topics discussed and time limitations of the workshop, the specific information and expectations of who is responsible for receiving and understanding this information was not discussed.
on email for official internal communication. The USAF PA office is headquartered at the Pentagon and led by Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, who gave a presentation and attended all but the last two presentations of the workshop. The primary responsibility of the PA office is communicating the Air Force message to the public, in particular through the news media. Communication for recruiting purposes (e.g., advertising) is the responsibility of the Air Force Recruiting Command (AFRC).
Air Force communication is both internal—to and from members of the Air Force, both operationally and for imparting general information—and external, from the Air Force to Congress, potential recruits, and the public at large. As Workshop Vice Chair Dr. Pamela Drew noted, “The purpose of external communication is inspiration; the focus of internal communication is execution.” Gen. Welsh made it clear that his primary concerns relate to internal communication, with external communication being of secondary interest.
It became clear through discussion with Gen. Welsh and Gen. Cook that there is at present no overall USAF communication strategy “connecting the dots” of internal and external communication with the decisions and actions of the Air Force. Internal communication is siloed within the many operational commands spread across the Air Force’s different operating domains and around the world.
Externally, as described by Gen. Cook and other participants, the Air Force uses several slogans or vision statements for different purposes, including “Aim High . . . Fly, Fight, Win”; “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power for America”; “World’s Greatest Air Force: Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation”; and the simplest, “One Air Force” and “Above All.” However, there is not a single core message that describes succinctly the essence of the Air Force and that permeates and connects its communications. Nor has senior leadership established a consistent set of priorities for communication.
A common discussion point among several Air Force participants as well as non-Air Force participants was the current level of authority afforded to the PA office. Most fundamentally, there is no locus at the highest levels of the Air Force, as committee member Ms. Wendi Strong explained, for the alignment of strategic communication priorities between the CSAF and the Secretary of the Air Force, for agreement on strategic goals, and for the debate and adoption of an overall communication strategy supporting a broad “Air Force narrative.” Figure 1-1 illustrates that lack of alignment. Gen. Welsh recognized this shortcoming and welcomed advice from the workshop participants.
Gen. Welsh reiterated the challenges with both internal and external communication. “Internally,” he said, “getting information to the wing commanders is a big frustration.” To move toward what he termed “active communication,” Gen. Welsh discussed a recently developed web-based tool on which information is posted and an email message is generated to all commanders that the message is there. He expects them to read and acknowledge receipt of the information. “I think it’s essential to keep our Airmen fully informed of decisions we make relating to the budget and the impacts it will have on them. Our people are really smart, they like information, and they’re used to getting it quickly.” However, as noted by a workshop participant, the conventional internal media are not meeting that need. For example, Gen. Welsh related, only about 10 percent of the attendees at an Air Force-wide Wing Commanders Conference said they have ever read the PA guidance that is sent out weekly by email. The Air Force Times, an independent news and information source, is widely read, but it is not an official USAF product and can disseminate inaccurate information that is discussed and believed, Gen. Welsh said.
Capt. Samuel “Ross” Hubbard, speaking on behalf of the younger corps of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), said, “We understand the Air Force mission and vision. What we don’t understand is how to take the objectives of senior leadership and square those with the mission and vision, and then with our own jobs.” He said that when he asks his leadership for that kind of information, “they don’t have it; we’re not receiving the message that Gen. Welsh thinks we’re receiving.” The Air Force communicates mainly by email, but “to convert you to the mission, I have to meet you face to face. You have to convert me before I can convert my friends.”
Social media present a different level of concern that is related to this communication disconnect. These platforms—Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, blogs—are barely used at all by the official Air Force today; yet the Air Force workforce uses them ubiquitously. They are used not only for purely social interaction of a personal nature, but
FIGURE 1-1 Graphical depiction of the Air Force communication landscape. SOURCE: Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, Air Force Public Affairs. Used with permission.
also to complain about aspects of their jobs. Gen. Welsh referred to Airmen “slamming each other and their bosses on blogs like Yik Yak.” He said the reach of these tools is so great that such communications quickly spread false information that is readily believed and further disseminated by others, ultimately reaching parents, the media, and lawmakers. Gen. Cook described the many difficulties that responding to this misinformation creates for her office.
Regarding external communication, Gen. Welsh said, “The problem is how to explain a very complex mission set to a very different set of audiences.” Many participants stated that the main problem is the lack of one simple and compelling message—a brand—to describe the Air Force. As committee member Dr. Richard Hallion noted, “The other services have an overarching, unifying identity. The other services also give a human face to their public image.” The Air Force tends to stress innovation and technology, not people. These images do not convey the essence of the Air Force or provide a compelling reason for audiences to care about the organization and its people, Dr. Hallion said.
Finally, Gen. Welsh asked the workshop to consider the question, “How do we know when we’re doing it [communicating] right?” He concluded by saying, “I don’t feel like we’re an adaptive organization when it comes to communication.”
Ensuing discussion on key challenges involved the committee members and other participants with Gen. Welsh and presenters Brig. Gen. Cook, Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, Maj. Gen. Mari Eder (U.S. Army, retired), Dr. Vernon Miller, Dr. Alan Vick, former Air Force Secretaries James Roche and F. Whitten Peters, Col. Sean Monogue, and Capt. Hubbard.
Beginning with internal communication, Gen. Kwast said that the Air Force’s internal communication problem “is an organizational and cultural problem. It is not a public affairs problem.” Workshop Chair Gen. Douglas
Fraser (USAF, retired) noted the Air Force’s problem goes beyond the current scope of public affairs and added, “Too much of internal communication has been delegated to Public Affairs vice commanders and supervisors.” Gen. Welsh agreed that there are serious gaps in communication and that mechanisms are needed “to get the right information to the right people at the right time.” Ms. Strong added that holding leadership accountable for communication is clearly important; the question is how to do it. Additionally, Dr. Hallion commented that young Airmen see only their own roles but do not know where they fit into the overall picture. As Gen. Fraser stated, “The rank and file Airmen understand the Air Force mission and message. They don’t understand how senior-level decisions support or improve their ability to do the mission. They don’t know where to go online or offline to get the official Air Force position.”
Workshop participant Ms. Deborah Westphal, chief executive officer of Toffler Associates, asked what Gen. Welsh would like to see in this area in 5 years. He replied, “Airmen [should] feel comfortable knowing where information on big issues, big problems can be found.” A significant part of the solution would be that commanders and supervisors have to “proactively communicate—it’s part of your job description.” The workforce, by and large, does not go to AF.mil, where policy- and budget-related information resides. For example, Col. Monogue, chief for strategy and assessments for Air Force Public Affairs, noted that on AF.mil there is a smart-phone app called AFLink, which has been downloaded only 5,000 times. Consequently, Col. Monogue added, “Supervisors need to have the mindset that they have a responsibility to get this information to their people.”
A key issue identified by some participants is the ability of the Air Force workforce to trust what their leadership tells them, and to have confidence that they can ask questions and express opinions without repercussions. As Ms. Strong suggested, “Trust should be cultivated through communications that are authentic and transparent. That means telling people what you know, when you know it, in human terms and voice, with context and a focus on the “Why?” That trustworthiness, Ms. Westphal noted, requires a willingness to admit mistakes and a lack of complete knowledge—something that senior leaders in any organization are usually reluctant to do. Several workshop participants added that transparency, as described by Ms. Strong, may not always be achievable within a government organization.
Regarding external communication, former Secretary James Roche noted, “There’s no such thing as internal communication that’s separate from external communication. The one drives the other.” Gen. Fraser made the point that we arm Air Force personnel with powerful, expensive weapons, train them to use them, and hold them accountable, “but we’re not willing to do the same with communication and information.”
Using as an example the issue of budget cuts to programs, which are a frequent source of complaints from the workforce on social media, former Secretary Peters said, “From the top down, the program trade-offs make sense; but from the bottom up, they don’t. This leads to a two-fold problem: (1) How do we explain what we do, and why we’re doing it, to Congress, the press, and other stakeholders? and (2) How do we explain it to the troops so that they understand?” The issue of trust also applies to communication with the public.
The discussion of disconnects in communication upward and downward, internally and externally, led the committee to take a broader look at what underlies these problems. Many participants expressed the view that what the Air Force lacks is a “culture of communication,” one driven from the top leadership by an overarching communication strategy, anchored with a clear, compelling brand, that ties all elements of Air Force communication together in an integrated way. As Ms. Strong stated, “There may be a number of organizational goals that communications can help achieve, but there must be clear objectives with defined outcomes. And those objectives must be agreed upon by the most senior level leadership of the Air Force.” Leaders should take ownership of and responsibility for communication as an integral part of Air Force operations and should ensure that communication objectives are met. A strong culture of communication also engenders loyalty on the part of the workforce, reducing the spread of the negative and inaccurate information that concerns Gen. Welsh and other Air Force leaders.
Theme 1—Culture of Communication. Many participants expressed the view that the USAF lacks a culture of communication—a culture in which every leader or supervisor is responsible and accountable for communicating within the organization. Based on several participants’ statements, senior leaders do not “own” communication as an essential part of Air Force operations—that is, they do not integrate it into the overall Air Force strategy. Consequently, there is no real commitment to messaging internally or externally in a con-
sistent and deliberate way. Infusing a culture of communication throughout the Air Force would mean that communication is free flowing within the organization and understood as everyone’s responsibility, for which leaders are accountable. Such a culture is built on a foundation of trust at the Airman level. Trust, in turn, is best cultivated through communications that are authentic and transparent, conveyed with a human and personal voice, with a realistic context and a focus on the “Why?” Ultimately, actions matter more than words, and the two have to be closely aligned and integrated in order to maintain the trust of highly “connected” and aware Airmen. Trust is a two-way street; in such a culture, every participant feels a responsibility to protect the reputation of the organization.
During discussions on the current organizational structure and responsibilities within the Air Force, several participants noted that the Air Force does not currently have a single-point coordinating group that works with senior Air Force leaders to set communication policies and plans and oversee their execution. Additionally, these participants remarked that communications leadership does not currently have a seat at the most senior-level tables and does not hold senior-level positions commensurate with other core, essential functions. They emphasized the importance of an organization having adequate resources for planning, execution, and measurement.
Workshop participant Ms. Rebecca Winston, president of Winston Strategic Management Consultants, pointed out that communication in the Air Force differs from that of other operations—it is not handled as a program. Instead, it is a diffuse enterprise that cuts across all operations and is not integrated across the enterprise for all audiences. Ms. Strong added that the PA function does not have accountability for all messaging to all audiences through all channels. There is no organization-wide communications function, resulting in weakly structured and coordinated internal communications. The communications organization is under-resourced and needs to be modernized in terms of organizational structure, processes, and tools, Ms. Strong said. It is evident, she concluded, that the Air Force does not value communication very highly.
Theme 2—Organizational Responsibility. Several participants noted that Air Force communication leadership currently does not have frequent or reliable access to senior leaders and executive-level meetings or hold senior positions commensurate with other core functions of the Air Force such as personnel or operations. As highlighted by some presenters, given the lack of integration and access, the USAF PA office is often assigned responsibility for tasks that it does not have the authority or sufficient resources to execute efficiently, while other important functions are unassigned and not performed. These participants also highlighted the importance of having adequate resources for planning, execution, and measurement within an organization.
An important aspect of the discussions centering on the key challenges facing the Air Force was the need for a communication strategy. As previously discussed, the Air Force does not currently have a point for the alignment of strategic communication priorities among the senior-most leadership. The following question was raised by the committee: “Is there a difference between a crisis strategy and an enduring strategy?” Dr. Brian Hoey, principal of the Hoey Group, believes that an organization can map a long-term strategy but must be willing and able to adapt it—to build in flexibility for contingencies. “The crisis is always about to hit—you just don’t know it,” he said. Dr. Pamela Drew noted that in a crisis, transparency and authenticity are crucial.
Theme 3—Communication Strategy. As discussed between the participants from the USAF and several participants from industry, the USAF does not have a coherent communication strategy encompassing both internal and external communication and the diverse audiences it must engage. As a result, there is not one, clear set of organizational objectives owned by the senior-most leadership. Responsibility for external communication is divided between the PA office (for media) and the AFRC (for recruiting). Internal communication is stovepiped at the operational command level, where it is ad hoc, subject specific, and disconnected from the Airmen workforce. Several other participants noted that, in general, a communication strategy should improve the performance of an organization and contain outcome-oriented goals tailored to specific audiences. Additionally, they noted that an effective communication strategy is centrally owned and governed with decentralized execution—focused on desired outcomes and impact, not just education and information.