social-media

The Air Force says it has public affairs function primarily so it can educate the American people on the story of airpower. This is how it justifies a public relations staff that is gargantuan by any objective standard, with roughly one publicist for every 70 airmen.

But the justification is hollow, because it has turned this bloated staff into an internal messaging system. A legion of doctrinarians who recite favored rule interpretations like an endless, rolling AFN commercial. Quite often, this puts public affairs airmen in the position of insulting the intelligence of their colleagues. Someone called my attention to another recent example of that.

Writing for the MacDill Air Force Base website earlier this year, Senior Airman Vernon Fowler scolds us that “[p]ersonal or not, the AFI still stands.

A few introductory pebbles for a large pool of shame.

First of all, can we please stop sending junior airmen down from the mountain to share their wisdom? Credibility isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing. In a military environment driven by hierarchical authority and experience-driven technical prowess, it matters more than it might in other contexts.

Don’t put an E-4 in a position to be ignored or ridiculed by forcing him into the role of Caesar’s tribune. This is a long-running practice within public affairs that needs to end. Let airmen write journalistic pieces about things actually happening on Air Force bases, and leave the opining to those who get paid to speak on behalf of the institution — commanders. This fosters the right kind of repartee, and is more constructive than fattening the already bloated PA Ignore File.

Second, if you’re going to force the guy to write platitudes, at least give him a decent headline. This one is grammatically and logically nonsensical. It’s written to sound as though it is the AFI that might be “personal or not” when it means to refer to individual communication. Moreover, AFIs don’t “stand” or “not stand.” They just are. They don’t get overturned. What he means to suggest here is that the AFI in question is applicable under the circumstances. What circumstances? Who knows.

With a tortured headline and a dubious byline, this thing limps out of the gate like a pregnant yak. But it doesn’t take long for it to get worse. The worst part of this particular internal message … is the message.

Let’s review a few of the more regrettable turns of phrase glommed into the mass of this steaming literary pile.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-12-38-54-pm

Well, it’s doubtful that the whole rest of the world cares much about your tedious Snapchat fumblings, especially since they self-destruct. Nor does the world care about your Twitter slap-fight about whether Kirby or Moebius is the true Silver Surfer.

But more importantly, you are not held to a higher standard the “general population,” by which I can assume you mean to refer to your fellow citizens. The ones whose taxes pay your salary. Believe it or not, their employers also have social media policies. Most of those policies expect adult judgment, which is a higher standard than the crib-safe one your article embraces.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-12-51-51-pm

Wrong again. You only represent the Air Force when you explicitly represent the Air Force. If you’re a general officer or maybe a wing commander, it’s arguable that you’re a service representative by default. In fact, the same might be said about all commanding officers. But if you’re not in one of those categories and not wearing your uniform, you represent only yourself. The AFI assumes this, which is why

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-12-54-42-pm

There would be no reason for this guidance to exist if airmen were always considered service representatives. Therefore, if the AFI is to be considered valid, it must be true that airmen are not always service representatives. So maybe people should stop using that trite phrase, and maybe others should stop repeating it like thoughtless pull-string dolls.

The closing flourish:

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-12-58-04-pm

This starts out sounding like good advice fit for adult consumption. Then it veers into the ditch by invoking the coercive specter of “consequences” … while once again committing the foul of implied military elitism by pretending the rest of the world is a consequence-free zone.

The cherry on top of this nonsense sundae is an invitation to call PA with your questions about how to post personal thoughts on social media. Because this is what a publicity staff is for … to hold a rolling, open-door workshop discouraging individual, personal expression that doesn’t align with institutional narratives.

Disciples of John Boyd will recognize the idea that an organization only has so much energy to expend. How that energy is expended will determine the organization’s relative advantage over competitors. Energy expended to advance the organization is well spent. Energy wasted on banal trivialities like what Johnny Bagadonuts is saying online during his personal time is then unavailable for application to real issues and problems confronting the organization. And the Air Force has plenty of those.

So why does the service get this so wrong so often? Because it isn’t competing with the nation’s enemies. It’s competing with its own airmen for control over their attitudes and thoughts. To pursue the thought control it covets, it has put its professional communicators into the role of mattress police … checking tags on mattresses while real problems rage unaddressed.

Meanwhile, who is teaching the American people about the value of airpower?

If you have any problems viewing this article, please report it here.