I remember my fellow PJs joking that I had “crossed over to the dark side.” After twelve years as a military aerial photographer and photojournalist, multiple photography awards, and years of attending the Eddie Adams workshop, I traded in my camera for officer bars.
Little did I know how much being a public affairs officer would bring me full-circle with photography. Instead of shooting the news, I was escorting media out to the flight line so they could shoot the news. Instead of writing captions, I was preparing news releases and articles. Instead of documenting distinguished visitor tours and special events, I was planning them. Instead of hoping that I would get my photographs in the newspaper, I was the chief determining content, reviewing layout and editing for a newspaper.
Considering my colleagues’ past references to the “dark side,” I knew it was not a welcome change for all when the Air Force decided to merge multimedia and public affairs. But for me, I was able to rejoin my enlisted brethren in a new capacity.
If you’re not in the Air Force, don’t leave me yet. There have been talks in other services of public affairs absorbing the multimedia mission as well. The Navy’s All Hands Magazine is managed by public affairs. And when deployed, we’re all part of the same team.
I don’t know who could have missed the news of the Air Force cutting 40,000 Airmen from our ranks to recapitalize and modernize our weapon systems. That’s almost as many people as there are on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard. With Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, our tempo is at full throttle. So it stands to reason that many people will have to change the way they do business.
I was thrilled to be a wing chief in public affairs during the multimedia merge, so I could help forge the way ahead. There is no mandate from leadership on how bases should conduct this merge. So I’d like to share four key issues most folks will address as they become one organization; real estate, resources, training and leadership.
At most Air Force bases, the public affairs office resides in the wing headquarters and multimedia is in the communication squadron. Some bases have chosen to remain in separate buildings with satellite supervision when they merged. My top priority was for our organizations to live together. It’s important for everyone to understand that we all are part of the same mission, and it’s difficult to grasp that when you don’t physically intermingle daily. Living separately allows division by each section wondering how the other section spends their time and lack of coordination on events where both specialties will provide services. Don’t just reside together; work together. We created an Outlook calendar, so everyone could see what was on the agenda for each section. Since multimedia did not request to join public affairs, I wanted them to feel welcome and develop relationships as part of one team. It’s not always easy to convince leadership to dedicate the real estate and invest funds toward a move, but I believe it’s worth it.
In the Air Force, public affairs gained the larger budget of multimedia with the merge. Some headquarters or Major Commands (MAJCOMS) withheld some of the money, so they could leverage purchasing power and standardize equipment. This resource merge will take place differently in different organizations and services. The key to success will be for the public affairs leadership to understand the importance of multimedia specialists having the latest cameras, editing equipment, software, and training. This needs to be communicated from the very beginning for budget planning. Educate those who hold the purse strings and advocate for your resources.
As far as training, our Airmen are receiving mixed messages about the future of their careers. They are being told that they will remain focused on their specialty as a photographer or videographer, and only those who enter the career field later will be trained at both multimedia and public affairs skills. I’m here to tell you that no matter what theories are put out; when half of your office is deployed everyone has to know how to pitch in. Everyone does not need to be an expert in all fields, but training should be given on basic skills that will cross over in the office; taking a photograph, writing a press release or escorting media. Also, those NCOs that are glad they won’t have to learn new skills will find themselves at a disadvantage when they have to lead a team that knows how to do it all. Those NCOs will lose credibility with their staff. Come up with a training plan that will allow each Airman to try something new.
The last office I was in conducted a formal training program every Friday. Topics included photographing a base event, escorting media, conducting a base tour, answering calls for jet noise complaints, and responding to battle staff calls. The superintendent made sure everyone had a chance to step out of their specialty. A public affairs person would shoot an event with a photographer; a photographer would lead a base tour with a public affairs person. When staffing was tight from deployments, I could count on my Airmen to still complete the mission. Some of them liked having a break from their usual tasks, and it will make them more marketable when they leave the service. Training is also a huge moral builder, because people like to feel competent in their job.
The non-commissioned officers of multimedia have a huge leadership charge in front of them right now. That charge starts with having a vision. If they are worried public affairs officers won’t understand how to employ them properly, then it’s their duty to educate that officer and request the tools and training that they need. If they are worried things won’t be the way they used to be, they should get moving and form the way it will be. Don’t just get rid of old tasks, think about how multimedia can make each craft valuable to the public affairs team and thus, the commander. In today’s Air Force, your specialty has to provide a capability to the commander. If the commanders aren’t satisfied, public affairs and multimedia manning will be trimmed down, and funding will wither. If NCOs don’t step forward now, our Airmen will not be successful in the future.
Although my full circle gave me a clear picture of where I led my Airmen, most leaders in both career fields will have to imagine their flight path. When pilots go through turbulence, they set their heading and stay steady. Likewise our leaders, especially our NCOs, need to develop a vision of where our merger will take us in five years, even 10 years, and set a heading, and stay steady.
I’m now happily retired, but I pray that all those incredible NCOs and officers still serving will establish capabilities and products that I can’t even imagine. What an awesome opportunity you have to build something for the future!