Power Competition: The Dynamic Evolution of Public Affairs

In the midst of exponential technological advancement, military communicators must also evolve. To better leverage the power of information, the Air Force should evolve public affairs into the Office of Information, Engagement, and Research Strategies.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

By Oshawn Jefferson

Author’s Note:  In the midst of exponential technological advancement, military communicators must also evolve. To better leverage the power of information, the Air Force should consider evolving public affairs into the Office of Information, Engagement, and Research Strategies. The following article is a way Public Affairs could evolve in the era of power competition.

By 2050, drones make deliveries to households, people travel through Europe by Hyperloop, human-thinking machines are almost perfected, and the first space trips to Mars are being executed. Additionally, prosthetics are so advanced that people are modifying their bodies to enhance job performance, virtual reality replaced text books in schools, smartphones are slowly being replaced by augmented reality screens embedded in jewelry, self-driving vehicles are the norm, and artificial intelligence is integrated into most homes and businesses.

What hasn’t changed is the need to communicate in a relevant, effective way. In the midst of these new technological wonders, military communicators must also evolve.

2017 saw the rise of fake and bias news, information bots, psychometrics, the continued diffusion of technology around the world, as well as high-volume, multichannel, rapid, continuous, and repetitive use of social media by adversaries around the world. Amidst all this change, to better leverage the power of information, the Air Force made the decision to evolve public affairs into the Office of Information, Engagement and Research Strategies. The initiative is scheduled for implementation by 2020.

The need for change was first realized when the German-based company, Cambridge Analytica, tailored political communications to voters’ personalities using a combination of social media and psychometrics technologies. Experts considered these actions impactful to the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections. Through a combination of micro-targeting and psychological profiling, the company gathered up to 5,000 pieces of data about a potential voter to create a psychological profile. They then adapted political communications to that voter’s personality, sentiments, ideology, and beliefs.

Using a survey, strategically placed throughout various social media channels, the company invited users to take a personality test in order to group people based on measures of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Cambridge Analytica analysists then combined individuals’ personality traits with their voting history, where they shop, what they buy, and even what they watch on television, to create content which voters were expected to react to.

Observation of open source assessments and technology used to directly influence individuals and sway public sentiment led to the understanding that adversaries could duplicate these actions. This prompted Air Force leadership to realize that the time for innovative changes in strategic communication was now.

To keep up with this new direction in communication and stay ahead of the next wave of technological diffusion in society, the Air Force has decided to evolve public affairs. An understanding of local and transregional information environments was combined with innovations developed by the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Leadership Communication at Air University. Through collaboration with joint teams throughout the Department of Defense (DoD), a new program was developed. This program will focus on using tactical decision games and predictive and prescriptive communication activities to synchronize strategic communication operations. Rather than relying on technology to engage stakeholders, this new approach will engage with human beings on human levels.

Dubbed “I’s and EARS,” the new Office of Information, Engagement and Research Strategies in the future will execute full-spectrum communication activities, monitor open source public sentiment on key topics and community concerns, conduct daily analysis and assessments on trending topics from around the globe to the local communities, and apply strategic foresight principles to leverage the latest technology or cultural trends. I’s and EARS will coordinate daily with intelligence, behavioral scientist, information operations specialists, and proactively engage in operations to deconflict and enhance communication strategies to leverage the right combination of analog and digital communication channels.

To increase effectiveness, efficiency, and stay ahead in a fast-paced world, the office will operate with fewer decision cycles and engage in communication activities with minimal oversight. For example, by adopting the principles of holocracy, I’s and EARS will be able to post content, run outreach and engagement activities, and foster relationships in line with both Air Force objective and the needs of a local community. Command priorities will be weaved into ongoing communication activities, to allow the I’s and EARS offices to operate as subject and process matter experts at their specific locations.

I’s and EARS will enable collaboration and information sharing on an unprecedented scale, through influence of adversary political will, public sentiment, employee engagement, cyberspace, and information-related capabilities. For example, by leveraging social bots in digital engagements and routine conversations, I’s and EARS will be able to perfect sentiment and opinion mining to create predictive analytics models to strategically and proactively engage with people, communities, and adversaries.

The 2016 Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment stated thatthe United States can expect challenges across three interrelated dimensions: the physical, composed of command and control systems and the supporting infrastructure that enables individuals and organizations to create information-related effects; the informational, composed of the content itself, including the manner by which it is collected, processed, stored, disseminated, and protected; and the cognitive, composed of the attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of those who transmit, receive, respond to, or act upon information.”

By 2020, the development of I’s and EARS will help the DoD turn those challenges into strengths by becoming predictive and prescriptive with the use of data analytics, being proactive and deliberate with communication activities, and eradicating risk-averse barriers to innovation. Characterized by providing ubiquitous on-demand media, interpersonal hyper-connectivity, and face-to-face influence opportunities, an office will be able to handle crises, engagement activities, or counter narrative operations anywhere in the world.

Each military installation should have their own office, which will conduct multi-disciplined behavioral research, provide full spectrum engagement, develop digital strategies, mitigate ambiguity in crisis communication, enable organizational/employee engagement, and serve as an offensive, advising, and intervention agency. Each office will collaborate with joint teams to create, implement, and evaluate strategic communication activities, public communications campaigns, operation assessments, and nontraditional threats to safety and security for military organizations worldwide.

For optimal effectiveness, I’s and EARS must become a trusted adviser and counselor to commanders and leaders at all levels. The need for building a “team of teams,” has never been higher. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed a degradation of trust between organizations, senior leadership and stakeholders. The study showed senior leader credibility bottoming out and trust in business falling. Yet despite this widespread cynicism, there is hope and opportunity to build trust from the inside out, starting with employees.

To build trust the I’s and EARS must focus on objective reporting of both positive and negative issues. Additionally, they must allow members to voice their opinions, engage in honest conversation, and professional debate to build consensus. This will enable the program to remain relevant, transparent, and mission focused, allowing leaders to tackle issues head on and early. To enable units to achieve and sustain a competitive edge over their adversaries, the I’s and EARS must focus on talent empowerment by fostering an environment of innovation where trial and error and free flow of ideas is embraced.

The I’s and EARS personnel will be a combination of digital strategists, content creators, brand ambassadors, public relations experts, digital specialists, researchers, psychologist, sociologist, and trainers. This combination is expected to foster an innovative, strategically agile, hard to beat team. To keep the office relevant, the team will host a quarterly conference that promotes conversation between office members, industry leaders, and higher headquarters about current trends in strategic communication. There will be a constant focus on people gaining new skill-sets, embracing new business models, diversification, and the need to take substantive actions.

Modeled after an operations center created for Strategic Communication Laboratories called Vision 360, base-level I’s and EARS offices in the future should be fitted with the most sophisticated technology in the world. Operators should be equipped with second-by-second tracking screens, integrated human-thinking computers, virtual simulators, Neural Lace technology, Sophia-like robots, and an Air Force Alexa function called “Infinity.” This combination of human intellect, strategic leadership communication concepts, and critical thinking will turn U.S. Air Force communication activities into a powerful weapon system.

The greatest impact of the I’s and EARS office will be its ability to give the United States and its allies a sustained competitive advantage in the communication environment. Initial pilot I’s and EARS offices are showing promising results.

If executed correctly, I’s and EARS offices can play a significant role in security and economic initiatives within U.S. Africa Command. For example, proactive outreach and engagement initiatives led by I’s and EARS could lead to reduced terrorist group-induced fatalities, as terrorists organizations efforts could be disrupted by forging relationships with regional partners and youth populations. Reduced recruitment efforts by Boko Haram and other active militant Islamist Groups will help bring stability to the region. U.S. Africa Command will be empowered to ensure U.S. and partner nation security forces have what they need, where they need it, and when they need it to respond to crisis. In addition, the research conducted by I’s and EARS teams across the continent can aid in the transformation of economic structure in Africa and help develop a market and investment climate where the private sector can thrive, as well as systematically fostering human capital by enriching educational and health services.

Across U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Europe Command, I’s and EARS officers can aid in deterring Russia’s Internet Research Agency and China’s Fifty Cent Army by partnering with the Council of Europe to combat information disorder through robust education and training programs. These efforts can help US digital technology be the credible sources for truth in the world.

Finally, in support of space operations, I’s and EARS, researchers will be able to use the table of disruptive technologies and bionic human enhancements to create a space communication strategy. This will enable joint teams to maintain information superiority and develop, strengthen, and sustain U.S. security relationships.

In conclusion, the evolution of public affairs into a team that can deliver the power of information with the metaphorical impact of a nuclear weapon is a shared vision we must aim to achieve. We live in a volatile time where adversaries like Russia and terrorist groups act daily to influence allies and communities around the world. All generations of people have access to more information than we can ever imagine. The Air Force has to take the lead and be “always there” when it comes to being strategic communicators. We can either study the thoughts of men or become the thoughts mankind studies. The opportunity for change is now.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government

Master Sergeant Oshawn Jefferson is the communication education manager for the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Leadership Communication at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL. He has taught almost 10,000 students during his time at AU. Master Sergeant Oshawn has 21 years of service in the Air Force.

3 thoughts on “Power Competition: The Dynamic Evolution of Public Affairs

  • May 8, 2018 at 12:03 am
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    This is the best article I’ve ever read in my life. Grate work Mr.Jefferson

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  • May 13, 2018 at 10:10 am
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    Public affairs practitioners have always had the potential for greater engagement in the operational planning and support process, but have refrained from doing so for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the community desires to protect its status as the unbiased voice of the commander and purveyor of truthful information about the military to the American public and to foreign media. That’s all well and good, but it comes with a cost. If you’re unbiased, you can’t be thought of as trying to “influence” audiences, even though the community acknowledges that providing information does have an influence on those who receive it. Protecting against this perception of influence has led, in my experience, to some humorous situations where members of the PA community could not be in the same room as members of the influence community (PSYOP/IO).

    In addition, PA training does not currently include training in foreign languages, studies of foreign social structures and cultural dynamics, and understanding of influence ways and means. Of course, that could all change for the better, as envisioned in this article, but to do so it would require bifurcating the PA career path to allow practitioners to train and serve in “pure PA” as members of the commander’s special staff, or “operational PA” integrated into the intelligence and operations sections of the commander’s staff. If the Air Force can pull this off, we’d all be better for it.

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  • June 23, 2018 at 10:49 am
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    I love that this discussion is out there, thinking about PA’s role and how it may need to change in response to recent events. I’m in Information Operations (IO) and have been working in Strategic Communications quite a bit.

    First, I’ll suggest that we’re already thinking this way, but with IO as the lead agent for influence and Strategic Communications. Doctrinally, IO seeks to “corrupt, disrupt, and usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” (JP 3-13 and AF Annex 3-13) IO accomplishes this through integrating Information Related Capabilities (IRCs) (PA, Civil Military Affairs, Electronic Warfare, Cyber, MISO, Military Deception, and OPSEC, to name a few) to broadly influence decision making. It’s important to note that IO doesn’t own these IRCs or even direct most of their efforts, but seeks opportunities to connect them together to amplify desired effects. if it’s not already part of the PA curriculum, there would be great value in PA understanding Information Operations, starting with JP 3-13 and AF Annex 3-13.

    That said, I think it’s essential that PA remain its own entity, separate from “influence”, by engaging in “objective reporting of both positive and negative issues”, as you said. Without a clear distinction between PA and IO (which explicitly seeks to influence) then PA’s credibility is undermined.

    I see opportunity for PA to evolve to do more Strat Comm (a function much closer to PA than it is to traditional influence operations), which would not undermine PA credibility and would take advantage of PA’s resources for writing, graphic design, and pushing a consistent message.

    Right now, Strat Comm is led by IO because it doesn’t really fall under another wheelhouse – even then, it’s barely mentioned in IO doctrine. The overall communications strategy would come from the COCOM along with Dept of State but PA could have a much larger role in sending a truthful message to hometown and English-speaking audiences but also to foreign populations (the more strategic comms side of things). This would require linguist support to translate/produce articles in the local language.

    The IO field is focused on better integrating IRCs, much like you’ve presented here. We need our fellow Airmen to be thinking, like you are, about how their fields can be influential in both traditional and novel ways.

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