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Case Study: U.S. Air Force Social & Traditional PR

The social media consultant's mantra lately has been "social media needs to be integrated Air_force_symbol_tie_tack with traditional marketing channels". While this seems self evident and I've written about it before, last week I found a great example from the U.S. Air Force I wanted to share because it provides a straightforward, best practice example of how an organization can use a single event to spark separate communications through traditional and social channels, targeting unique audiences to accomplish independent goals. The subject is the Department of Defense's decision to allow media attendance as the remains of those killed overseas are brought home to Dover Air Force Base in Maryland.

In the two different excerpts at the end of this post you'll see that the official press release from the Department of Defense Public Affairs office is directed at journalists with information of relevance to them about the new policy. It is crisp, official and factual, designed to announce what had become a controversial decision and provide information about the new rules. The blog post, by contrast, is targeted at the Air Force's Airmen employees and the general public, written by a named individual and addressing the behind-the-scenes changes that are taking place in how the Air Force communicates with the public. It is personal, humble and heartfelt, effectively putting the human spin on a challenging subject.

What is notable to me about these two examples is that while both communications sidestep the controversial aspects of the policy itself, each is effective in reaching its unique audience in a way the other channel would not be able to duplicate.

The U.S. Air Force is doing some really forward thinking work in social media as documented well by David Meerman Scott at WebInkNow here and here (don't miss the awesome blog-response workflow chart). Through a LinkedIn group last year I'd seen and commented on their "BlueTube" YouTube channel and the U.S. Air Force Live blog (first iteration)  but after reading David's first piece, I started watching their Twitter feed (where I saw the tweet about the blog post mentioned above). Doing some client research, I contacted Capt. David Faggard, Chief of Emerging Technology, to speak to him about the philosophy and approach the service was taking regarding social media. Given the important life-and-death nature of the military's business, I was a little surprised they were being so open in their social media strategy. What impressed me most about my conversation with Capt. Faggard was that it was clear it is precisely because their mission is so critical that they believe it is so important all their Airmen be talking about it.

As their New Media and the Air Force guide states (announced 4/10/09), "If the Air Force does not tell its own story, someone else will." For this reason, they go beyond just issuing a dry piece-of-paper policy (see the Navy's fairly unhelpful directive for an example of dry) and now include social/media guidance to all Airmen from Basic Training on up the line. The Air Force recognized several years ago that its most effective public relations strategy would be to enable the authentic voices of its 330,000+ Airmen, who embody the values and aspirations of the service. This policy, formalized by the Secretary of the Air Force in 2006, and is becoming real though social media. Considering that over 70% of their Airmen are active in social networking through Facebook, MySpace and other public sites they're  ahead of the curve in understanding that "all Airmen are communicators," and they're taking a smart approach to unleashing the power of their employee base for the good of the service.

EDIT: From David Meerman Scott, here is the video announcing the Air Force policy.

Because a fair amount of my business is supporting non-profit mission-driven organizations, I'm watching the Air Force's social media strategy unfold with interest, but I think their example is relevant beyond the non-profit realm and that commercial companies have a lot to learn from it as well. It's true that the emotional, professional and contractual commitments of the Airmen to the Air Force are tighter than the relationship the average employee has with their employer. It's also true that the Air Force provides Airmen more training than most companies offer employees and that this may make them more comfortable empowering their Airmen to wield their own words on its behalf in the information wars.

Despite these differences, however, corporate employees talk about their employer regardless of training, lack thereof or corporate blogging policy. Because the information economy affects the real economy so directly, for larger corporations especially, employees are becoming a strategic communications channel and a legitimate audience of their own. (See this Best Buy example posted last week by Jeremiah Owyang for inspiration on the latter point.) As commercial companies begin to realize the communications power lying dormant in their employee base, it's helpful that examples like the Air Force are out there waiting to be tapped.

Here are excerpts from the two communications mentioned above regarding the return of the fallen:

Press Release: Procedures To Obtain Media Access To Dignified Transfers Of Remains At Dover Air Force Base Announced

"Journalists will be granted access to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to view the dignified transfer of the remains of service members returning from overseas.

"Dignified transfers take place at all hours and in all weather conditions.  Media members will be required to transport themselves to Dover at the place and time specified in the notification email for escort onto Dover Air Force Base.  News media will be required to adhere to established ground rules at Dover Air Force Base while recording the event.

"For further information regarding access to coverage of a dignified transfer, media may contact the AFMAO Public Affairs office."

Issuing Agency: U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), April 3, 2009

U.S. Air Force Live Blog Post: A New Policy Brings a Change in Communications Attitude

"A new policy goes into effect today: Journalists are allowed to “view the dignified transfer of the remains of service members returning from overseas,” DOD's media advisory says."

"This post won't discuss the decision to allow or deny access to reporters.  This post discusses the communicators behind the scenes who are helping the media share this story because that's what I know about.  This event marks a significant change in the way Air Force has done Public Affairs in the past, IMHO.

"In nine years on active duty, I've not seen an effort so committed to ensuring family members were taken care of and that the story was told in the right way with honor and respect first and foremost. A first class operation for first class people who are no longer with us; they gave all and we owe it to them and their families.

"The Air Force understands that we need to communicate differently about what's happening in the world around us and this is one way it's being done.  Air Force leadership understood the media pressure that was about to envelop Dover Air Force Base and the Airmen there, so a plan was set forth and additional support was called in to truthfully and transparently represent the fallen servicemembers' family's wishes should media be allowed to cover events while still balancing the demand for timely information for the public.

"The Air Force is trying to engage, talk and share our story.  And we know that there have been issues in the past but these are steps in the right direction.  You can see photos here, video here and a story from Capt. Shannon Collins here. She's on the ground with the communication's team as well.

"Thank you to the families and friends of the fallen and all those who support our men and women in uniform. I cannot say enough how sorry we are for your loss."

U.S. Air Force Live Author: Captain David Faggard, Chief of Emerging Technology, April 6, 2009

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