A fundamental question is, “Why does communication matter?” As Dr. Alan Vick, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, explained, every government agency has a responsibility to go to the nation and explain why the taxpayers need to support that agency. In addition, leaders have more effective communication with their subordinates when they can start with an explanation of why what they do is important.
There are multiple audiences for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) message, both internally (commanders, supervisors, and Airmen) and externally (friends and family, the media, lawmakers, potential recruits, retirees, allies, and the public in general). This chapter of the workshop report will address some of the issues related to communicating with those diverse audiences.
Today’s frenetic communications environment makes it more difficult than ever for an organization to break through with its messages. Many of the industry experts participating in the workshop stated that communications—not only external ones, but also internal ones—must be compelling, highly relevant, personalized, and action-oriented. This points to the issue of branding, introduced in the previous chapter. The experts noted that communicating the complexity of the Air Force to multiple audiences and inspiring their support is no easy task; it requires a unifying theme. Dr. Brian Hoey noted that the more complex the organization and its mission, the greater the importance of projecting a clear, compelling message. The emotional content of the brand—what presenter Mr. William Power, senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard, called “communicating the core values of an organization”—is becoming more important than the literal and practical meaning of the brand. As Gen. Douglas Fraser noted, “There is a lot of art in communicating.” Mr. Peter Debreceny, senior partner at Gagen-MacDonald, said, “The Air Force narrative has to be coherent mentally but also inspiring emotionally.”
Many workshop participants stated that development of a simple, compelling brand for the Air Force that can speak to all generations should be a priority. A variety of messages could then be developed and tailored to different audiences, but still be tied to this overarching theme. Mr. William Power and Ms. Wendi Strong discussed the importance of being able to make a clear connection between the specifically tailored messages and the overarching brand, with clearly defined and measurable expected outcomes for each message—and then making those measurements and tying the results back to the evolution of the messaging. Strategies could be developed that communicate value to specific audiences in ways that drive desired outcomes beyond a basic level of understanding.
Mr. Power compared the advertising/recruiting “pitches” of the Marines, Army, and Air Force. The first two, he said, appeal to the viewer directly, in a human way. As an example, Mr. Power used the Air Force’s past theme “Above All” and noted that it is more amorphous; the objective of the message is unclear. It sounds “corporate,” he said, as though the target audience is Congress and the objective is the budget. He noted that the high-tech image of the Air Force is both positive and negative in this sense; there needs to be a balance. Ms. Strong suggested, “Public Affairs should challenge the idea you have to choose between the excitement of high-tech and the trust and loyalty that a more human-centered approach engenders.”
Ms. Rebecca Winston focused strongly on the importance of storytelling. “What we’re missing is the compelling stories that the public can relate to.” Young audiences in particular, she said, need heroes and role models with a human face. James Roche, former Secretary of the USAF, suggested telling the Air Force story “as if you were raising money for a company project: ‘This is something you want to invest in, and here’s why.’”
He elaborated further that one might view the Air Force as a portfolio of businesses, from space to special tactics, with Air Combat, Air Mobility, and the battlefield Airman in between; this could be an effective way to approach the issue of mission diversity in developing an Air Force brand.
The fact that top Air Force leadership rotates also emphasizes the importance of having a codified, strong brand that leaders at all levels buy into emotionally and intellectually, with the understanding that it will be central to the organization long into the future. Gen. Fraser noted that this means that an entire cadre of top leadership has to accept that core brand.
Theme 4—Brand. Several participants compared the USAF with the other military services and noted that the USAF does not have a single, clear, and compelling unifying theme or message—a brand—especially one that is closely aligned both internally and externally. This is partly a function of the diverse domains and complex multiple missions of the Air Force, and partly a function of its high-tech nature. As several other participants noted, a brand need not encompass every aspect of the Air Force’s mission,1 but it should be able to reflect the essence of the Air Force in a way that “Aim High . . . Fly, Fight, Win” does not. Additionally, they noted, messages can be tailored to different audiences and tied back to the single unifying theme, or brand, in order to inspire, inform, and remain emotionally relevant.
All of the communication experts who participated at the workshop voiced the opinion that everyone in an organization, including leadership at every level, has a role in effective communication. They said that “people leaders” are essential. Often in organizations, the most important and effective person in the communication chain (ideally, the chain of command) whom employees look to for information and leadership is their immediate supervisor. It was discussed among participants that immediate supervisors should help Airmen “connect the dots” between their day-to-day work and the greater Air Force mission. These supervisors form the intermediate level between policy makers and the doers who carry out the mission, but often they do not have the needed information or are reluctant to communicate it. Mr. Brian Ames, vice president of employee communications for the Boeing Company, said that Boeing managers are told that communication is not an additional task; “It’s what you do.”
Mr. Debreceny stated that internal communication in an organization used to be the least important part of communication. Now it is the most important part, the “critical enabler” linking an organization’s strategy, culture, and structure. “Organizations must provide clarity, information, and inspiration,” he said, so that employees can answer three questions: “What do I need to know?” “What do I need to do?” and “Why should I care?” Mr. Ryan Henary, managing director of internal communications for FedEx Ground, revealed that 20 people in his organization are now responsible for internal communication, while only 6 handle external communication—a reversal from just a few years ago. Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook reiterated that no one in the Air Force “owns” inter-
1 An assessment of historical USAF public narratives was presented by Dr. Alan Vick. Details of this assessment may be found in the 2015 RAND Corporation report Proclaiming Airpower: Air Force Narratives and American Public Opinion from 1917 to 2014, written by Dr. Vick.
nal communication. A few of the other workshop participants stated that the owner of the strategy should be the senior Air Force leadership.
Mr. Debreceny said that informal messaging is much more powerful today than formal messaging. Again, he said that leadership must be authentic: “If you say, ‘We’re going to be different than we were,’ then you have to be different.” Further, if organizations are to be transparent, then they must expose “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Otherwise, he said there is no credibility. Mr. Debreceny concluded by noting that in order to gain that credibility and the trust that comes with it, actions matter far more than words; the two must be aligned.
Again, many participants stated that stories are an important vehicle. Maj. Gen. Mari Eder, former head of communications for the U.S. Army, said that stories that go “up” from Airmen are as important as those produced by the PA office; there needs to be a conduit and the means to use them.
Many participants highlighted the importance of maintaining face-to-face interactions and communications between supervisors and Airmen on a routine basis. Face-to-face communication results in buy-in, while email is seen as transactional. They noted that this type of in-person communication is more effective in helping Airmen gain trust and confidence in the information they receive. Several participants added that, although they should not replace face-to-face interactions, social media offer a rich array of options for reaching people of all ages both internally and externally. In addition, because exchanges on social media are highly trackable, trends in attitudes as well as influential people can be identified and incorporated into the communication strategy. Gen. Cook said that Air Force policy for social media exists, but it is unclear, resulting in the underutilization of these media.
In today’s world it is not enough to “push” out strategic communication. The internal audience will circulate and discuss it and will often interpret it inaccurately. The way to deal with that, Mr. Debreceny suggested, is to keep the communication going and to link the internal audience into the strategy to heighten understanding. Employees want to know “What’s in it for me?” You, as the communicator, want to know “What do we want them to know, to do, and to feel?”
Ms. Rebecca Winston said that the reason for emphasizing internal communication more is that what other people say within the organization is what the workforce believes is the accepted truth, and they will act on that. Therefore, she said, it is crucial to get ahead of the uninformed discussion. She noted that you cannot control individual biases, but in general you can influence the environment (and thus the culture).
Dr. Hoey emphasized the value of identifying key “influencers” in the workplace to help develop strategy for both internal and external communication. Often such people are not in the chain of command. Engage them, place confidence in them, and make them part of the communication team, he advised. They are often sensitive to the unintended consequences of policy decisions and can help leadership understand the personal concerns and fears of the workplace that lead to negative communications.
Theme 5—Internal Communication. As noted by Mr. Debreceny, internal communications in large organizations have become more important than official external communications, but several other workshop participants voiced the view that the USAF has not adequately addressed this shift in emphasis. Airmen by and large understand what the Air Force is and does. But they are narrowly focused on their job, communicate most often with their immediate cohorts, and often do not understand the connection between their work and the larger purpose and mission of the Air Force. Their connection to Air Force policy and purpose is primarily face-to-face, through their supervisor—and this continues to be the most trusted and effective form of communication. But, as discussed by some of the participants, supervisors often do not realize the implications of policies on their unit’s work and consequently do not communicate that clearly to the workforce. As a result, Airmen’s communications among themselves and with their networks via social media are unmanaged and sometimes appear to be unjustifiably negative. Communications “up” as well as outward from the workforce to the public are increasingly important compared to traditional communication down through the chain of command. As discussed by Dr. Hoey, involving internal “influencers” outside the chain of command in the communication process is one method that companies have used to facilitate stronger internal messaging.
In this context it is necessary to remember the distinction between formal external communication, with which the PA office and the Air Force Recruiting Command (AFRC) are charged, and the informal external communication conducted largely by Airmen, primarily through social media. Although internal and external communications now drive each other and overlap to a considerable extent, as former Secretary Roche noted earlier, these two channels will never coincide; however, said committee member Dr. Joann Keyton, ideally they should be aligned. That said, she continued, it is important to ask, “What communication skills do Airmen need for different communication tasks at different levels?”
Several participants discussed the importance of storytelling and how to go about it. Ms. Winston stressed that presenting real-world examples of Air Force personnel overcoming great odds to achieve their missions would be an effective way to carry the message. Use real people as the storytellers, Mr. Debreceny urged. As Mr. Power stated, use as few words as possible; think of stories as “vignettes.”
The image, or brand, issue is pertinent here. Capt. Hubbard said that, in his view, branding is only important for external audiences: “The people inside already know what the Air Force is. We don’t need slogans; we need information about why we do what we do. If you convert us (the Airmen), we can help you with the external communications task.”
Face-to-face communication is very powerful for external audiences as well as internal audiences. Capt. Samuel “Ross” Hubbard noted that there is fear on the part of junior officers and enlisted personnel about telling the Air Force story, because so much information is restricted. In addition, Gen. Cook added, if senior officers display a reluctance to speak externally on an official basis, then that reluctance will tend to be transmitted to their subordinates.
Theme 6—External Communication. Several participants noted that increasingly, as was shown through examples in other organizations, internal and external communications overlap and merge. Because of the pervasive use of social media, there are no longer boundaries between the two. These participants also noted that airmen are potentially the best and most direct channel for positive communication with external as well as internal audiences, and the best advocates for the Air Force with the public. As noted earlier while discussing issues in describing the value of the USAF, several participants expressed the view that a powerful way to tell the Air Force story, both internally and externally, is through the use of “storytelling” involving Air Force people doing interesting or even extraordinary, “heroic” things. Graphics are becoming more effective than words, and words should be minimized to reduce messages to their essence.
Several speakers noted the importance of recognizing generational differences for preferred methods of communicating information. As previously discussed, Capt. Hubbard noted that the majority of information in the Air Force is communicated via email, but that is not necessarily the preferred method to convey information to younger Airmen. Several participants highlighted the need to address the differences among generations and how the use of social media is often more prolific among younger Airmen, both for internal and external communication.
Related to this issue, several workshop participants, to include leaders of social media development and management in industry, described to the committee how some organizations are exploring and using innovative ways to communicate with both internal and external audiences and how others are just beginning to explore the potential. Mr. Robert Harles, global head of social media for Accenture Digital, said that the key to social media is that “people want to know they matter.” Social media is now at an inflection point, he said, in which it is moving from a “grassroots” use to a more traditional function in companies. Ms. Lois Kelly, chief executive officer of Foghound, said that whereas different modes of communication in companies used to be separate divisions (print advertising, employee communication, public affairs, etc.), now they are merging. Social media are helping to drive that shift. They offer new options for how to deliver the message, which is what gives the message impact and has consequently changed the communication landscape. She added that social media are highly valued as tools
for building internal and external networks and for collaborative problem-solving. Advances in measurement and analysis options for communications have facilitated this mainstreaming of social media in business.
As Mr. Ed Terpening, industry analyst for the Altimeter Group, noted, “Social media is a relationship-building tool more than a communication tool.” He described three types of relationships that are central to the use of social media—internal collaboration, external engagement, and a third new area, employee advocacy (social recruiting, referrals, etc.). Mr. Terpening said that the governance structure of organizations often is not ready for and therefore resists the introduction of social media. Introducing social media requires “new skills at every level.” To provide such education for the leadership, he recommends using “reverse mentors” (i.e., young employees who can help executives understand the range of platforms and uses of social media), rather than workshops.
Mr. Ed Brill, vice president of social business cloud services at IBM, defined a social business as “an organization whose culture of participation and systems of engagement encourage networks of people to create business outcomes.” He said that to determine the return on investment for implanting social media, it is necessary to have real outcomes. Mr. Brill said that IBM’s social media platforms have become the baseline communication mechanism for the entire company.
Ms. Kelly observed that, usually, we acquire a new technology and then try to figure out what problem to solve with it. Social media are no different; we have to think about “What are the strategic objectives, and how can these tools support those objectives?” Ms. Kelly described two social media best practices as (1) measuring what matters in communication and (2) sharing good stories. Nowadays, she noted, some of the brightest people in companies—people whom management can trust—are put in charge of social media.
A big challenge in organizational use of social media for communication, Mr. Harles said, is reputation management. Changes in the public (and employee) view of the organization can happen instantly. Social media can both cause and manage this. He stated that two other important challenges are (1) insuring that you have sufficient resources and (2) laying the groundwork for the future.
Theme 7—General Role of Social Media. The social media experts participating in the workshop stated that social media are no longer separate and distinct from mainstream communication; they have become an integral part of the communication ecosystem and are a main component of communication at all levels today, for business as well as for personal use, to build networks and to strengthen collaborative problem-solving. In many large companies, social media are no longer seen as peripheral or optional, but as core functions. Social analytic tools and technologies have developed to a degree of sophistication such that they can now be used to gain real-time insight into communication effectiveness.