Air Force aims for fresh image with public affairs overhaul

Lawrence Korb is not the conversation partner most Air Force officers would choose. An assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, Korb has since become one of the military's most influential critics on op-ed pages around the country. And a spate of public controversies in the last few years has given Korb plenty of Air Force targets.

The service's costly F-22 fighter, he wrote, "is the most unnecessary weapon system being built by the Pentagon." Its plan to lease fuel tankers from Boeing was "wasteful ... pork-barrel spending." Aggressive proselytizing by fundamentalist Christian chaplains at the Air Force Academy was "evangelical jihad."

Yet just this January, Korb and his colleagues at the left-leaning Center for American Progress were paid a personal visit by none other than the new Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, who spent more than an hour answering any and all questions.

"He did a great job," Korb said. "I was pleasantly astounded when Moseley came over -- and he asked to come. I couldn't imagine [Chief of Staff John] Jumper, his predecessor, doing that," or most other military leaders for that matter. "They go out and give speeches," Korb said, but to volunteer for a face-to-face, freewheeling conversation with critics? "I've never heard of it."

But Moseley's new approach goes beyond the comfort zone of many Air Force officers, most of whom are pilots and engineers who struggle to explain some of the military's most costly and complex programs to nonspecialists.

Even more than the other services, "the Air Force is a fairly insular organization," said the Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson, a consultant to major defense contractors. "It would rather preach to the choir than to proselytize. The new chief of staff of the Air Force understands he has to change the culture of his organization when it comes to communicating to outsiders. I'm not sure that any of his last five predecessors understand it was necessary. But he does."

For decades, from the atom-bombing of Japan, to the missile race with Russia, to the air war over Kosovo, the Air Force could take its strategic pre-eminence for granted. For decades, from Jimmy Stewart starring in Strategic Air Command, to Clint Eastwood in Firefox, to Kurt Russell in Stargate, the Air Force could count on the general public accepting that pre-eminence.

Then, amateur pilots armed with box cutters got four hijacked planes past all of our costly defenses, and the United States began a long global war with elusive, low-tech guerrillas.

"As long as the military is fighting in Iraq, the Army and the Marine Corps are going to get the lion's share of media coverage," said Dave Moniz, an award-winning reporter for USA Today until the Air Force hired him as its in-house media expert in December. "The challenge for the Air Force," Moniz said, "and frankly for the Navy as well, is to get people to tell the newsworthy, compelling stories they have."

Hiring Moniz is just one part of a wholesale overhaul of the service's public-affairs arm, which does everything from issuing press releases, to answering reporters' queries, to booking Air Force bands.

In October, just a month after Gen. Moseley was sworn in as chief, he issued orders to nearly double the number of airmen working in the Pentagon public-affairs, or PA, bureau (from 59 to a projected 110, according to leaked draft plans). And he formed two new internal councils (one at the major/ colonel level, the other at the one-star/two-star general level) that explicitly give public affairs a seat at the planning table alongside every other part of the Air Force's top staff.

To orchestrate it all, Moseley has not only named a new chief of public affairs, a one-star general's job, but also created a new two-star position to direct "strategic communications."

"As a one-star, you don't always have the access," said Erwin Lessel, the brigadier general named to fill the new position. His pending promotion to major general will give the new communications director equal status with the Air Force's budget and legislative affairs chiefs. His expanding staff will allow the Air Force not only to catch up with the crazed new world of 24/7 cable and Internet outlets but also to get ahead of the news cycle with more long-range planning and market research.

"We need to understand our audiences, which we haven't done well in the past," Lessel said. "And we need to be precise in getting information to these audiences," which include the general public, potential recruits, retired officers, current airmen, op-ed writers, and congressional staffers.

"In the past, public affairs has not been properly resourced to be proactive," said Lessel. "They are getting attention now."

Attention, however, does not necessarily equal respect. Neither Lessel nor his deputy -- Col. Michelle Johnson, the new chief of public affairs, who will be promoted to brigadier general -- is actually trained as a public-affairs officer. Both are cargo pilots with numerous command and staff jobs to their credit, but Lessel has only a single, eight-month tour as a spokesman in Baghdad, and Johnson has no communications experience at all.

Since 1975, noted one retired public-affairs officer, the head of Air Force public affairs has usually been a public-affairs specialist, with just three exceptions. One was Lessel and Johnson's immediate predecessor, Brig. Gen. Frederick Roggero. The two other nonspecialists were appointed by Gen. Merrill McPeak, chief of staff from 1990 to 1994.

"The two people he put in were both good," said the former officer, but with the back-to-back appointments of outsiders, "the message was, 'McPeak doesn't trust us.' "

Many public-affairs officers are hearing that message again today. "It shook up a lot of people in the career field," said a second former public-affairs officer, "and some people are considering retirement."

Lessel and Johnson insist that they come to praise public affairs, not to bury it. "We didn't blow anyone else out of the way," Johnson said. "We need to nurture this career field. One of my primary goals is to build a force of public-affairs professionals who are able to take my job. We don't have anyone postured to take that position [today]."

Johnson's tough-love assessment may not be unjustified. "The Air Force has historically underperformed in getting the word out," said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst for the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group. When top generals lobbied unsuccessfully last year for more F-22s, he noted, "the broad congressional relations and public-relations hard work was given short shrift."

It's not as if there weren't successful models elsewhere in the military. "If you talk to reporters," said Moniz, "[most] would say that the Navy does public affairs very, very well and has for a long time, [while] the Air Force has neglected public affairs."

Kenneth Bacon, a former reporter who became Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration, agreed. "By far, the Navy and the Marines have been the most successful at public affairs," he said.

In the Navy in particular, he added, "they get these guys as young lieutenants, they work their way up through the system, and they know one of them is going to end up as chief of naval information," the top Navy spokesman.

So while the outsiders now heading Air Force public affairs have made "a good start," Bacon said, "if you really want to improve public affairs, you need to make it a productive career path: Build a strong cadre of young officers and promote them up the chain until one of them becomes the top person in public affairs."

Until then, the Air Force must make the best case it can. A month after Gen. Moseley's meeting with Larry Korb, the administration's 2007 budget requested $439 billion for defense, including some, but not all, of the Air Force's desired F-22s. Even before the budget's official release, Korb was telling reporters that the F-22 buy should be slashed and the savings spent on more ground troops for Iraq.

"Moseley did a very good job of saying why you need the F-22," Korb said. "But he didn't change the essentials."

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