In a day and age where 72% of Americans get news on their mobile device, everything has the ability to be newsworthy everywhere all the time.
A local story about an attack on a C-17 pilot carrying a Confederate flag goes viral and the Air Force Chief of Staff wants details. Influential area leaders take a sudden interest in a sexual assault investigation after newspaper coverage of a citizen’s complaint at another base. Community residents learn your aircrew are transporting possible Ebola patients, and the wing commander wants to hold a town hall meeting covered by local media. What do all these have in common? In each scenario, the wing commander will make two phone calls. First, he will call Public Affairs (PA) and second, he will call the wing Staff Judge Advocate (SJA).
The scenarios listed above are all real. They happened when we worked together as SJA and Chief of PA at the 62nd Airlift Wing, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. They illustrate several important points. First, there is no such thing as a local story. In a day and age where 72% of Americans get news on their mobile device, everything has the ability to be newsworthy everywhere all the time. Second, most everyone has an opinion and feels entitled to express it. In fact, many view this as their civic duty. This includes “agenda-driven and uniformed external groups” who want to “frame the narrative and optics” in a way to benefit their own special interests, not the Air Force’s. Third, to assess the situation and tell the accurate Air Force story, senior leaders need the facts and they need them fast. “Our success as an Air Force will, in part, be dependent on how well we communicate, in crises and in daily operations,” said Brigadier General Ed Thomas, Director of Air Force Public Affairs. “Our Chief of Staff, General Goldfein, highlights this best telling commanders that as soon as they pass back the guidon they must pick up the microphone.” Finally, as trusted members of the commander’s inner circle, the legal office should expect to collaborate regularly with PA and often in high-tension situations with ticking-time constraints. Put succinctly, JA and PA are a commander’s first responders.
While relationships between legal offices and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) have been rightly emphasized in recent years, SJAs also need to nurture strong relationships with their command’s PA office. In fact, it’s our view that the relationship between the legal office and PA is one of the most neglected relationships in a command staff. This article seeks to remedy this. First, the article begins by discussing modern media trends and what they mean for the Air Force. Second, the article details PA’s complex mission, which is often underappreciated by the legal office. Finally, the article concludes with tips for developing the legal office’s relationship with PA.
Modern Media Trends and the Air Force
In July 2016, the Pew Research Center released a study entitled The Modern News Consumer: News attitudes and practices in the digital era. A fascinating piece on how digital platforms have reshaped the news media business, the study’s narrative prelude begins with the following observation:
|Wave after wave of digital innovation has introduced a new set of influences on the public’s news habits. Social media, messaging apps, texts and e-mail provide a constant stream of news from people we’re close to as well as total strangers. News stories can now come piecemeal, as links or shares, putting less emphasis on the publisher. And, hyper levels of immediacy and mobility can create an expectation that the news will come to us whether we look for it or not.|
In its study, the Pew Research Center made several interesting findings. First, nearly 40% of Americans now say they often get news online. This makes online media second only to television news (57%) as the preferred media source with print newspapers back at a distant 20%. While this may come as no great surprise, the “demographics speak to the fragility behind those TV numbers.” Specifically, the older a person is the more likely they are to get news from television; the younger one is the more likely they are to get news online. Stated differently, someone born in Generation X (1965-1980) is more likely to get news from TV whereas the Millenial Generation (1981-1997) and those enlisting in the Air Force right now are even less likely to do so.
Second, as noted above, 72% of Americans got some form of news from a mobile device in 2016. This may also not seem significant but for the fact that the 72% figure is up from just 54% in 2013. Add to this that two-thirds of adults get news on both their mobile device and their desktop or laptop and these statistics show the “flash to bang” of modern media is now more accelerated than it ever has been.
Social media is now a common news source with 62% of adults saying they get news on social media and 18% saying they do so often.
Third, social media is now a common news source with 62% of adults saying they get news on social media and 18% saying they do so often. Which social media site is at the top for a news source? It’s Facebook, of course. According to Pew’s research, 67% of U.S. adults used Facebook in 2016 compared to 48% who used YouTube, 19% for Instagram, and 16% for Twitter. As a source of news, then, Facebook also leads the way with two-thirds of Facebook users saying they get news on the social networking site. This amounts to 44% of the general U.S. adult population. In contrast, only 10% of surveyed users say they get news from YouTube, 4% from Instagram, and 9% from Twitter. In addition, many people use social media virtually every day. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of Facebook users say they use the site each day followed by Instagram (used daily by 51% of users), Twitter (42%) and Pinterest (25%). Given these statistics, it’s safe to say use of a social media site is now part of many Americans’ daily life and that getting news is a big part of what people do on social media.
Finally, the Pew Research Center discovered some interesting insights in a different survey from the 2016 presidential election. While there are many that could be discussed, what’s relevant here is that more people used the candidates’ social media posts as a source of news about the election than they did they did the candidates’ websites or emails. Specifically, 24% of U.S. adults used social media either from Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to keep up with election news while only 10% used their websites and 9% used campaign emails. To be certain, this trend has continued since President Trump’s election and his continued use of Twitter, where he has 27 million followers on his personal account (@realDonaldTrump) and another 16 million on his official presidential account (@POTUS). President Trump has implemented Twitter as part of his overall strategic message strategy. “It’s a great form of communication,” then President-elect Trump told CBS’s Lesley Stahl just days after his election. “When you give me a bad story or when you give me an inaccurate story or when somebody other than you and another network, or whatever…I have a method of fighting back.”
What do these media trends mean for the Air Force? First, the Pew research shines a light on how Airmen get news. As of 31 March 2017, 38% of the 315,725 active duty Airmen are below the age of 26. In the officer corps, the average age is 35 years old with only 12% of officers being below the age of 26. In contrast, the average age of the enlisted force is 28 and 44% of enlisted Airmen are below the age of 26. Looking at these numbers in light of the Pew research, we can infer most Airmen get their news online rather than by television and that trend is even more likely if that Airman is enlisted.
Second, news is now more direct to Airmen than ever. Gone are the days we remember where an Airman picked up the Friday base newspaper to find out what’s been going on in the wing. Breaking news about your base—whether real or fake—now comes in the form of a push notification, a Google alert, or a ringtone an Airmen sees on the flightline or when they wake up in the morning. Moreover, the speed of media also applies to special interest groups or “opinion first” blogs who can now easily ambush the often slow Air Force bureaucracy.
Finally, with a high dependency on social media and airmen more likely to use that platform than they are to view a base website or a commander’s e-mail, there may also be a corresponding attitude that airmen feel they are somehow entitled to direct interaction with Air Force senior leaders. Speaking of President Trump’s use of Twitter, one supporter said it energizes young people. “It’s like a modern-day constituent letter,” she said. “They’re tweeting at their president, they’re voicing their opinion, and they’re more politically involved.” The same sentiment applies to Airmen. Emboldened by instant access, they now believe they can directly influence policy. Suffice it to say, all of this ups the game for an often manpower-lean staff agency like PA.
When it comes to PA, legal professionals often think too small. Judge Advocates often think all PA does is work with the media and they’re necessary only for the occasional high-profile court-martial. However, like JA, PA touches virtually every command mission and they’re one of the Commander’s key agencies. Like an SJA, the Chief of Command PA has direct access to the Boss and is a trusted advisor in his or her inner circle. PA is important—even critical to mission success.
The mission of Air Force Public Affairs is to advance Air Force priorities and achieve mission objectives through integrated planning, execution, and assessment of communication capabilities. Through strategic and responsive release of accurate and useful information, imagery, and musical products to Air Force, domestic, and international audiences, PA puts operational actions into context. They also facilitate the development of informed perceptions about Air Force operations, help undermine adversarial propaganda efforts, and contribute to the achievement of national, strategic, and operational objectives.
To accomplish this mission, PA works with various actors both on and off base. In addition, PA must establish relationships across various layers of command structure, which may include, as in our case, Joint Base leadership or another service. Moreover, PA’s relational reach goes all the way up to the Headquarters Air Force and Secretariat level and beyond to the Department of Defense (DoD).
PA’s activities include media operations, community engagement, command information, environmental program support and many others. These activities often overlap in legal and ethical lanes. Working closely together protects them; you and, most importantly, your Boss. Moreover, PA operations are dizzying; they require close coordination up and down the chain and on and off the installation.
Of course, one of the most important relationships is with their respective legal office. All PA activities must be conducted within the bounds established by laws and government ethics and it is that built-upon relationship that PAs have with JAs to ensure they are abiding by those laws and ethics. This protects command on the local level, but also helps facilitate worldwide Air Force operations and objectives.
How to Develop Your Relationship with PA
So, the time to strengthen your relationship with PA is now. How?
First, SJAs should think of their relationship with PA as they would their relationship with OSI. Many legal offices take practical steps to nurture their relationships with OSI. This often includes social activities with OSI, combined training events, and even more direct lines of cooperation such as early embedding of trial counsel into OSI investigations at the start of a case, and after-action hotwashes at the end. SJAs should do the same with PA. Partner with them on something outside of a middle of the night phone call. Invite them over to talk about what you do. Play sports with them. Include them in office hails and farewells. Make PA a regular stop on your way to see your boss. Have them take your office through media training. Or do a mock press conference for your attorneys. Given the high stakes involved, your relationship with PA is as important as your relationship with OSI, if not more. Nurture it.
Second, SJAs should take deliberate time to consider what is happening (or about to happen) in the command through the lens of what is newsworthy. In its Guide To Communication: Tools, Techniques & Best Practices for Media Engagement, the Air Force Center for Strategic Leadership Communication states that the press “naturally skews topic selection” in news coverage toward issues that generate advertising revenue. This is why a friendly community event where leadership gives turkeys to junior Airmen may get zero media coverage while a perceived dry environmental report with even minor write-ups may be breaking news. Moreover, if the mainstream press naturally skews topics, how much more will special interest advocacy groups who troll for the latest egregious violation of the Establishment Clause or the latest soundbite to support their narrative that the Air Force can’t prosecute sexual assault?
So, what makes something newsworthy? The Guide lists several factors to consider:
- Immediacy–something just happened or is about to
- Proximity–the closer to home the better
- Impact–the likely effect on readers/viewers
- Prominence–the fame, fortune or power of the persons involved
- Oddity–something bizarre, unusual or unexpected
- Conflict–arguments, debates or situations with a winner and loser
- Suspense–when the outcome cannot be foreseen
- Emotions–situations that stir up sympathy, anger or other emotions to which a reader/viewer can relate
- Sex or scandal–inappropriate behavior sells
Our suggestion is SJAs run these factors through their minds at weekly events, like the command staff meeting or the SJA’s weekly attorney meeting. After this, if anything seems like it may have media interest, even conservatively, then take steps to discuss these issues with PA. Getting ahead of the story helps everyone.
Finally, it’s important for SJAs to understand that while the legal office and PA work directly for the boss, and both want the best interests of the Air Force, each agency tends to operate out of different playbooks. For example, in crisis, PA generally works on a more accelerated timetable than the legal office. Often, PA has to advise the boss to respond or to say nothing at all, and this context is often a situation without many facts. PA is comfortable working in this space. They realize if they do not, then someone else will, and the “public narrative might be woefully inaccurate or highly damaging” to the Air Force. In contrast, Judge Advocates are cautious, and prefer to work in a much more fact-heavy environment. Our unwritten mantra is often “The right legal advice on a slower time table is better than fast advice that’s wrong.” Simply put, our PA friends just do not work inside those same professional constraints. SJAs need to appreciate that PA sees things from different perspectives not wrong ones. The failure to recognize this and account for it can be damaging, especially in crisis.
In conclusion, in the time it has taken for you to read this article something newsworthy has probably happened in your command. The story could be a breaking headline, a blog post, a video, or something out there on social media. Of course, the PA team is already aware. The Boss will be soon. In a moment, your phone will ring. The next crisis is about to begin. Are you ready?
About the Authors
 See Jeff Schogol, Police: ‘Hate Group’ assaults Air Force officer, Air Force Times (8 September 2015), http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/2015/09/08/police-hate-group-assaults-air-force-officer/71895964/.
 See Tony Lystra, Kelso High grad takes on Air Force after daughter reports rapes, The Daily News (1 June 2013), http://tdn.com/news/local/kelso-high-grad-takes-on-air-force-after-daughter-reports/article_ec3671d0-cb27-11e2-845d-001a4bcf887a.html.
 See SSgt Russ Jackson, JBLM leaders ease Ebola concerns at Town Hall, U.S. Air Force (17 November 2014), http://www.mcchord.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/767424/jblm-leaders-ease-ebola-concerns-at-town-hall.
 See Katerina Eva Matsa & Kristine Lu, 10 Facts about the changing digital news landscape, Pew Research Center (14 September 2016), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/14/facts-about-the-changing-digital-news-landscape/.
 Renée T. Walker, Crisis Counsel: When Legal and Public Relations Collaborate, The Public Relations Strategist (22 July 2016), https://apps.prsa.org/Intelligence/TheStrategist/Articles/view/11579/1129/Crisis_Counsel_When_Legal_and_Public_Relations_Col#.WRuhApp1qM8.
 Interview with Brigadier General Edward W. Thomas, Director, Air Force Public Affairs, in [abbr. location per BB R17.2.5] (18 April 2017).
 Walker, supra note 5, at 11.
 Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel & Elisa Shearer, The Modern News Consumer: News Attitudes and Practices in the Digital Era, Pew Research Center (7 July 2016), http://www.journalism.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/07/PJ_2016.07.07_Modern-News-Consumer_FINAL.pdf.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 4.
 Id. (“While solid majorities of both those ages 50-64 (72%) and those 65+ (85%) often get news on TV, far smaller shares of younger adults do so (45% of those 30-49 and 27% of those 18-29). Alternatively, the two younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news – 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 49% of those ages 30-49 often do so.”).” Id.
 See Richard Fry, Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation, Pew Research Center (25 April 2016), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/. (“Millennials refers to the population ages 18 to 34). Id.
 See Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel & Shearer, supra note 8.
 Jeffrey Gottfried & Elisa Shearer, News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, Pew Research Center 2 (26 May 2016), http://www.journalism.org/files/2016/05/PJ_2016.05.26_social-media-and-news_FINAL-1.pdf. The 62% figure is up from 2012, but Pew conducted their 2012 survey on the question of whether or not respondents “see” news on social media. Id. at 2 n.1. The 2016 question asked if respondents “get” news from social media. Id.
 See id. at 4.
 Id. Though Twitter has a smaller user base, a larger portion of their users get news there than they who say they get news from YouTube or Instagram. See Id.
 Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center (12 January 2017), http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/.
 Elisa Shearer, Candidates’ social media outpaces their websites and emails as an online campaign news source, Pew Research Center (20 July 2016), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/20/candidates-social-media-outpaces-their-websites-and-emails-as-an-online-campaign-news-source/.
 Suzanne Presto, Brynn Gingras & Chris Welch, Trump voters to President: Stop Twitter rants, CNN Politics (29 March 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/28/politics/trump-tweets-supporters-ccntv/.
 See id
 Lesley Stahl, President-Elect Trump speaks to a divided country on 60 Minutes, CBS News: 60 Minutes (13 November 2016), http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-donald-trump-family-melania-ivanka-lesley-stahl/.
 Air Force Personnel Center, Air Force Demographics, U.S. Air Force (31 December 2016), http://www.afpc.af.mil/Air-Force-Demographics.
 See Presto, Gingras & Welch, supra note 27.
 See U.S. Dep’t of Air Force, Instr. 35-101, Public Affairs Responsibilities and Management para. 1.2 (12 January 2016).
 Id. at para. 2.4.
 Id. at para. 1.6.
 The Air Univ., U.S. Dep’t of Air Force, Guide to Communication: Tools, Techniques & Best Practices for Media Engagement (2017).
 Id. at 6.
 Walker, supra note 5, at 10.