A conversation with Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, Director of Public Affairs, United States Air Force
UF: Your opening keynote will overview the highly relevant skills and experiences that military service provides to private sector corporate leadership. Can you share a preview of what attendees can expect to learn during your session?
KC: As I understand, the Summit is designed to identify strategies that enhance engagement and share methods to improve the value of strategic communication and public affairs. So in order to get to that, I believe you need to have three things: You need the right team, the right target and the right training.
A truly strategic approach to communication requires a diverse and inclusive team. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in organizations very much like that, having come up as a female trumpet player through high school. You can imagine the diversity I had in my trumpet row as the only female there. And learning within the university environment, working on a music degree, in the same building as our arts, humanities and drama department, was again another very diverse unit.
I learned early on that there is great value in celebrating the differences and highlighting the unique characteristics of everyone involved. I think that is what is required to get to the right team, which gets to the strategic approach of communications. That team should celebrate the diversity of thought, it should appreciate diverse backgrounds and experiences, and it should create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and therefore is willing to participate.
Specific to the Air Force, we celebrate the Airman identity. With every organization, if you can define its unique identity, then that team is less likely to be distracted by unproductive chatter and instead can orient itself toward its goals and objectives.
That leads to the next point: if you have identified the right target, that then will move your organization forward. If you are not shooting at the right target, even the best processes will ultimately fail. Understanding what that right target is in the military also means to understand the commander’s intent: that’s the single leader’s intellect that integrates across all duties. That can translate into any organization. Just call the commander the boss, and whatever that direction is translates into the intent. For the Air Force, what it does is allows us to either fly in tight four-ship configuration or frankly untethered from the rest and still strike the target as directed.
All that said, you get to the last part: ultimately, it’s about the people. For us and any organization that I have led, I believe you must deliberately develop your people. A deliberate approach does several things: it ensures that the training and education is appropriately lined up with the unit’s goals, objectives and ultimate mission. It ensures that your staff is prepared to succeed. In my mind, most importantly, it indicates to your staff that you have a plan for them — that they are in the game. That they are valued within the organization, and as a result, are more likely to be committed to the mission and to the task at hand.
If you can accomplish all of the above, and you are able to speak to your team on frequencies that value dedication over personal ambition, you can affect the level of passion in the workforce that builds a love of service strong enough to survive the occasional poor leader and you can build a better place to be. And really, at the end of the day, I think that’s all we seek in the workplace.
UF: What will be your commander’s intent for attendance at the conference?
KC: If I’m successful, I think people will walk away from my speech understanding that while the military can be prescriptive — and we absolutely have our marching orders — we are also an organization that values innovation, that values diversity of thought and that creates an environment — at least for me and every organization that I’ve led — that truly desires the members of the organization to have a passion for what they do.
At the end of the day, if you can get all of that within your group, you can get to a very effective strategic message. And your communications plans are effective and will hit the target — hit your soul. That makes communicating a lot easier and more credible. So, if I’m successful, they’ll see that these military values are attributes within our communications strategies.
UF: What are the most compelling assets that military veterans bring to private job market?
KC: I speak specifically about public affairs professionals — whether we are talking to our new Airmen or to seasoned public affairs officers, we absolutely understand the need to think strategically about mission and impact.
Airmen understand the broader mission of the Air Force and the great strength that comes from understanding the identity of that institution. And so, our Airman are really good at connecting these dots. We all have our roles, but we all know how to partner to meet the mission. I think that translates nicely for someone who has spent time in the military and moves into corporate America and the business sector.
Because we value diversity, the Air Force is a large organization with diverse backgrounds performing a variety of missions around the globe. Public affairs is really no exception, with multiple organizations manned by officers, enlisted and civilians from all backgrounds. Airmen inherently understand the value of teamwork and the best approaches to integrating individuals in a collaborative effort. Being able to partner and build relationships is something that we all value and work on throughout our entire experience in the military. I think that works nicely once you move it into corporate America.
Finally, we have a skill set more unique to the military — certainly more well practiced than most — and that is flexibility. As you know, the key to airpower is flexibility. We’re pretty doggone good at it. And you see that manifested in a huge range of issues that our public affairs officers address in any given week or month.
We built our organization to account for that, for flexibility and for responsiveness and also to be adaptive. I think that quality of flexibility nests nicely into corporate America and helps bring about innovation. We have a fearless approach and have less trepidation to change. I think that is something very valuable that a military member would bring into any corporate industry or organization.
UF: What is the Air Force doing to raise visibility for the valuable role that military veterans can play within private organizations?
KC: As we’ve downsized over the years — reduced the numbers in our ranks, it has been very important that the transition from military life into the private workforce is as easy as possible. We focused on it by necessity, because we want our folks to be successful when they are out of the service.
I also think that we pay a lot of attention to this because we believe that there are skill sets we bring with us that corporate America would value. We had a long history of grooming our folks to be experts. In our career program progressions, we develop our people all the time, to continue building blocks with education and experience. I believe that increases their value within outside organizations. We instill a mindset of continual improvement which, for the most part, creates self-motivated individuals. I think that is a characteristic most organizations would value.
So, how do we do that? How do we ensure those skill sets are visible? We partner. We certainly don’t do it by ourselves. We partner with programs championed by the White House and OSD and private organizations. These programs help us link up our veterans with industry and help to bridge the gaps that sometimes stem from differences in our language and experiences. The military definitely has its own language and we have to make sure that we are bridging that gap to help both sides understand how we can connect and build that strong relationship.
Who do we partner with? The Department of Labor, the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, the Feds Hire Vets program, Hire Heroes USA, and GE and Walmart, just to name a few. Those are folks that we are actively engaged with to ensure that we can raise up the visibility of the value of a veteran.
We also have in our active programs a fellowship program that introduces our Airmen to corporate America. We place some of our best and brightest young officers with industry — we call it Education with Industry. We also work with for-profit and nonprofit leaders, such as Coca Cola, UPS, the Rand Cooperation, Porter Novelli and the American Red Cross, to name a few. These organizations benefit from our highly skilled professionals and their dedicated focus on projects and programs, while at the same time learning a little bit about their country’s military.
For our Airmen, once they have completed that year of fellowship, they are able to translate what they learn from corporate practices into new and innovative ways to execute our own missions. One of the greatest pieces of that exchange is actually benchmarking best practices. We try to ensure that our Airmen are able to transfer their skill set from the military to private sectors through our internal transition programs in addition to the ones we partner with in private organizations.
UF: Are there any notable practices and/or trends within the private sector that can be traced back to the Air Force?
KC: These are always tough questions because you can quickly look like you want to brag. But I think there are some fundamental skills that military members learn very quickly and very early in their careers, maybe more so than in corporate America.
Just given the risks of our business, we are put into high-threat, high-risk environments. And so there are times — for public affairs officers, usually in their first assignments — that they are hit with what most people would consider crisis communications opportunities. As they are protecting the nation, the military has a long history of developing that expertise as well as knowing and perfecting the difference between strategy and tactics.
We also look at the results through a detailed analysis approach. All of these elements are connected by deliberate planning. Before we execute a mission with any level of risk, we identify that risk. Then we are prepared with deliberate planning for the “what ifs.” We probably plan “what ifs” more than most [organizations]. That way, we ensure that the communication efforts that we’re planning are synchronized, that they are integrated Air Force-wide into our communication activities and, finally, that are in support of our Air Force priorities.
For example, we have spent years at the leading edge of proactive crisis communications. We plan these communications activities across a range of potential crises — from plane crashes to environmental disasters. We very deliberately train our media spokespeople to be able to manage crisis communications. It goes back to what I think is our inherent mission — it requires us to be a little more prepared much sooner in our experiences.
The other piece I’ve seen is understanding the difference between operational design and the strategic level. Operationally, we clearly define the problem and articulate the commander’s intent. Then, we make sure that our goals and objectives nest nicely under that commander’s intent. That way, we define the lines of effort that provide a specific desired effect and contribute to a well-defined end state.
What I am describing here, as you and anybody who has studied strategic communications well knows, is that left-to-right range of deliberately planning your communication efforts. We do this nearly every single day, considering all the missions that we’re taking on. I think my organization — public affairs across the Air Force — works very, very hard to ensure that our people are thinking at that strategic level.
UF: In a crisis, do you set up a team, apart from the crisis operations, to think long term? I know, for example, that the European Greenpeace Headquarters puts three people in a room, takes away their cell phones and has them focus on the visualizing the situation in five years. Do you have some people creating strategies that are removed from the crisis mode?
KC: Absolutely I do! I’ve been in this seat for about a year. When I arrived, I would say that our strategy division had somewhat atrophied. Again, good people were doing good work, but the crises of the day were just getting in the way.
We now have an entire division, many more than just three, that everyday are paid to think long-lead. That’s my strategy division. My commander’s intent for them is to take the primary priorities of the Air Force, our key focus areas, and think long lead: think about the narrative, think about how we would incorporate all of the pieces of our public affairs capability and put together a strategic plan that we would execute somewhere down the road that would ensure that our hit was very deliberate.
That is the deliberate planning cell we have set aside. That includes the narrative, it includes the desired outcome, it includes all the capabilities that come from our social media team, web graphics and design teams — even the use of our Air Force band program (we have musicians who carry messages in a very unique way that other pieces of our communications capability cannot). And so, yes, it is a division of about 18 or so people that come from a variety of backgrounds — again it is that diversity piece — and their expertise pretty much covers the Air Force. So, it is not just public affairs people in that group, it’s people with personnel/HR backgrounds, operational backgrounds, with acquisition backgrounds, to ensure that when we put this plan together in a way that we are covering the cloth of our Air Force. And I believe you have to have that! I think it starts there. When I envisioned the organization in my head when I walked in this door a year ago, I knew that everything started and went through that strategy division. It has to! Or we’re going to miss a piece of it. Or we are going to get distracted by the day-to-day fight.
UF: Any other comments you would like to make?
KC: I’m excited to develop and mature relationships with all of our friends and partners within the private sector and other government organizations. The partnerships between business, civic and government organizations are absolutely essential, especially in today’s economy. None of us has a monopoly on good ideas. While we all face unique challenges, the rapid rate of change of the communication environment is common to every organization, and I believe there is much we can learn from each other!