Culture of Communication. Many participants expressed the view that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) lacks a “culture of communication”—a culture where every leader/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 consistent 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.
Organizational Responsibility. Several participants noted that Air Force communication leadership currently do 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 Public Affairs (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 additionally highlighted the importance of having adequate resources for planning, execution, and measurement within an organization.
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 Air Force Recruiting Command (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.
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, but it should 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.
Internal Communication. As noted by Peter 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. However, 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. However, 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, Airmens’ 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 Brian 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.
External Communication. Several participants noted that, as was shown through examples in other organizations, internal and external communications increasingly overlap and merge. Because of the pervasive use of social media, there are no longer boundaries between the two. These participants additionally 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. 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.
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 communications effectiveness.
Role of Social Media in the Air Force. As noted by Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, the USAF does not have a clear policy toward the use of social media, and its use of social media is thus far limited. Many participants noted that internally, social media should be available to all employees to help create a sense of community and connectedness across the diversity of the Air Force while facilitating many core Air Force functions. Externally, they are seen as essential tools for communicating with all audiences and can provide early warning, through analytics, regarding emerging issues and potential conflicts. As Gen. Douglas Fraser commented, social media and analytics together
can provide the “radar” into the Air Force’s “organizational battlespace” for both internal and external communications. For companies such as IBM, social media have been a driver of innovation. Several participants noted that corporate experience has shown that there will be resistance on the part of senior leadership, but it is essential to engage fully with this new communications reality. Experience has also shown that awareness of the benefits, through training and “reverse mentorship” of senior leaders, will overcome the hesitancy. Formal guidelines and training on what can and cannot be done can reduce the risk of misuse.
Measurement. Several measurement experts presented established tools and techniques for measuring the effectiveness of communication in an organization. As discussed, the process begins with senior leadership setting goals and determining desired outcomes—not simply outputs. Communication excellence can then be measured against quantifiable objectives and resulting performance, and the data can be used to improve decision making. Measuring social media use and analyzing how employees are communicating provides important awareness of the communication networks and key influencers within the organization. There are experts in industry who guide organizations in confidently and effectively planning and implementing a well-integrated communication strategy using the best available tools.