MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. It was seven years ago when the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, directed the merger of multimedia and public affairs Airmen, and it has taken those years to bring their super-offices for media/community relations, news, data and images to fruition. Today, still deep in the fight, Airmen are re-thinking their communications synchronization with the help of the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center and each other's best practices.
According to the National Guard Bureau, a fraction of public affairs Airmen – those who served before the merger – received any classroom instruction that addressed the joined career fields and their new management tasks. One of the biggest complaints from managers then was that they basically went to bed as Visual Information and woke up as Public Affairs, said one official.
Although talk of the merger mostly fell silent, Senior Master Sgt. Shaun Withers and Master Sgt. Bill Conner still hold lessons here that address some remaining deficiencies.
The Air National Guard’s Public Affairs Managers course is a solid two-weeks of instruction on how to run a successful Public Affairs office. It was the TEC’s first Professional Continuing Education course offered – introduced many years ago as the Audio Visual Management Course.
The certified instructors train more than 50 students a year from the Air National Guard’s 89 flying Wings – not because of the merger, but because Public Affairs is now an office prone to constant change and trends.
“The career field changes and technology changes so fast now that we recommend fulltime support staff to take the course every two to three years,” said Withers, career field manager and functional area manager for NGB Public Affairs.
Withers makes the drive here three times a year from the Air National Guard Readiness Center on Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to teach the course. He has logged a good amount of time to ensure its continued success. “As far as value added, this is one of the best things I’ve seen us provide,” he said.
In an effort to integrate the new Public Affairs Air Force Instructions, Withers and others rewrote the entire course. A lot of the old paperwork and Visual Information requirements were tossed, and things like media engagement and traditional public affairs tasks were introduced.
Feedback has been positive, Withers said.
“It’s exactly what people are looking for,” he said, adding that his greatest support has been from Wing executive officers who attend the course as a means to get public affairs savvy. Course attendance, which is financed by the units, remains high despite tough budget times.
On a recent afternoon at the TEC campus, the instructors teamed up with the TEC’s broadcasters to test students in mock, on-camera media interviews. “With today's tight budgets, we may be the only training they're going receive for quite some time, so we take it very seriously," Conner said.
The students later reviewed themselves with the instructors and offered each other gentle suggestions about their body language and word choices. A few students gave odd answers or stumbled in their recordings, which made for some shared chuckles and laughs in class.
Conner was straight forward about the fact that some Wing executive officers and public affairs managers had little to no time in front of a camera, despite their critical responsibilities as external speakers. “Every time we teach this course we're reminded just how important the course is,” he said.
Unlike assigned readings of their new AFIs, the course encouraged students to also share their best practices and products. “You can get only so much from the new AFIs,” said Capt. Steven Stubbs, a public affairs officer who traveled from the 186th Air Refueling Wing in Mississippi.
Stubbs had to overhaul his public affairs messages and products four times in the last few years for his Wing’s seemingly endless revolving weapons systems. The course is a big help to him and his fulltime manager, he said, but what he also needs is skill training, especially for his older photographers now tasked as writers.
“We want to give the best products to our customers and to our Wing commander,” said Stubbs.
There are additional lessons offered by the Air National Guard here, said Withers. The “Smokey Mountain Short Course” – a week-long, fast-paced, broadcasters’ critique course – is popular, and similar efforts are underway to develop a news writing and photography course for photojournalists.
“I think the Air National Guard is doing a fantastic job,” said Withers. “When you have good interaction between the instructors and the students, sharing ideas, sharing best practices, that’s another way to ensure everybody has the best products out there.”
Guest speakers including regular visits by Lt. Col. Tom Crosson from the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, helps enrich students with broader practices and trends.
Students are also handed a DVD on their graduation day that contains volumes of Public Affairs data – anything on the career field, shared by those recognized as the best doing it.
Withers said there’s no reason that any Air National Guard unit should be reinventing their Public Affairs wheel today. “We have proven products … localize them to what you do,” he told them.
“We throw a lot of information at them in the two weeks they are here,” said Withers. “They get every briefing and every slide show, which allows them to take that home and use it as training aids … as well as all of the take-away programs and best practices. Honestly, the more training … the better off we are.”