After scandals, Air Force Academy made big PR investment

After scandals, Air Force Academy made big PR investment

by Tom Roeder, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service)
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The Air Force Academy plowed $2.6 million into an unprecedented public relations effort to polish its image after a series of scandals involving athletes at the school.

In addition to the donor money sent to outside public relations contractors, the school also hired five more workers to enlarge its "strategic communications" team after Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson ordered a restructuring of how the academy communicates with the public.

The new communications strategy, which wasn't publicly announced, was revealed in more than 200 pages of emails that it took the Gazette three years to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper sought the records while investigating athlete misconduct that put 32 players under scrutiny for acts including drug use and sexual assault.

Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Allen Herritage said the focus on communications and public affairs spending was part of a wider effort by the academy to show the public that it takes discipline seriously.

"With regard to communications, academy leadership is absolutely committed to engaging with the multiple audiences who have a stake in our mission," he wrote in an email. "Promoting good order and discipline and effectively communicating are not mutually exclusive. ... In fact, they're often intertwined."

One Gazette story apparently sparked the overhaul of the academy's public affairs operations. In December 2013, The Gazette wrote about former cadet Eric Thomas, a soccer player at the school who had been recruited to spy on his classmates.

Thomas contended that he was kicked out for his actions as an informant for the Office of Special Investigations. Academy officials, at the time and in the emails, contend that Thomas was booted for misconduct unrelated to his informant work.

Faced with controversy over the story, current superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson decided she had a public relations problem, the emails show.

"Today, I'm starting the realignment of our USAFA communications staff and our approach," she wrote in an email to Air Force Inspector General Maj. Gen Craig Gourley and other Pentagon brass.

"The restructuring focused on building up the directorate of communication, which works alongside the (public affairs) directorate to communicate internally and externally," Herritage wrote "The directorate of communication's staff has increased to include the hiring of a brand manager, director of marketing, legislation liaison, speech writer, and chief of outreach."

A former academy spokesman, who talked with The Gazette on the condition that his name not be used, said Johnson, who headed Air Force public affairs as a one-star general, has grown the academy public affairs office by at least 50 percent.

A consultant audited the office; a new director of communications was hired. Contracts included $1,245,734.33 for "strategic communications support and $487,671.40 for "branding and thought leadership."

"They are doing less with more," the former public relations staffer said.

But its clear in 2013, Johnson sought to fix the academy's image.

"Bottom line: USAFA is taking the beatings - externally and from alumni and parents," Johnson wrote.

The academy in 2014 ordered a sweeping review of athlete conduct after a series of stories in The Gazette.

Air Force investigators probed the activities of 32 cadets, including 16 football players and several other athletes. Three of the 32 cadets - two football players and a women's basketball player - were court-martialed, sentenced and discharged. Five more cadets - three basketball players and two football players - received administrative punishment that resulted in their dismissal. Another half-dozen cadets resigned. Three more cadets were kicked out for unrelated misconduct.

Of the 16 football players investigated, seven made it to graduation.

And, from courts-martial to a pregnancy, the school's public affairs office was on the front line, the emails show.

The mix of emails obtained by The Gazette skewed toward matters of public relations. While the newspaper sought internal discussions on the handling of allegations against athletes between leaders including head football coach Troy Calhoun, the released emails contain little of that.

Herritage said the emails represent what the academy could find in its archives and indicated that some of the emails sought were likely deleted.

"Since most of the release consists of emails from numerous people, emails that are not required to be maintained as official records, we should not be surprised that there are gaps and holes," Herritage said in an email. "The response consists of the emails and associated attachments existing at the time of the request. Since many of the produced emails are replies that were kept by responding senders, those attachments may not be included in the reply."

Tom Blanton, one of the nation's top federal records experts and director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, was befuddled by the academy's contention that emails had been legally deleted.

"What part of the Federal Records Act don't they understand?" he asked.

Federal law requires military leaders to hang on to emails indefinitely when they involve matters of public importance, including controversies, court cases and investigations. On the academy's contention that its emails somehow weren't "official records", Blanton said, "I guess there is no limit to the silliness of mankind."

Herritage said the records released to The Gazette show academy leaders upholding the school's values.

"The preponderance of senior leader email provided in the response relates to the judicial process and holding perpetrators accountable," he wrote. "We expect our cadets to live by our Air Force core values of integrity, excellence and service and to treat their fellow service members with unconditional dignity and respect. Those who perpetrated these activities demonstrated a break from our core principles. Their behavior, when discovered, was immediately stopped and an investigation was promptly initiated; those responsible were disciplined."

The former academy public relations expert, though, said the academy has shown reluctance to fully discuss the missteps of cadets and commanders.

"They were very secretive and they have gotten more secretive," he said. "We're not even telling our own people what's going on."

Secrecy was on display in the documents released to The Gazette.

The released emails included a string of news releases that the school sent to media around the nation. But in the versions supplied under the Freedom of Information Act, the academy redacted the names they had earlier made public.

The emails also included copies of stories that ran in The Gazette with the names carefully redacted.

The academy cited privacy concerns.

Adam Marshall, a lawyer with the Washington D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the academy's reasoning for those redactions is at best silly and at worst unlawful.

"Information that's already in the public domain cannot be withheld under the Freedom of Information Act," Marshall said. "That's ridiculous."

The emails show that academy athletic leaders were concerned with media portrayals of misconduct on their teams.

In June of 2014, former Athletic Director Hans Mueh sent Johnson an email complaining that athlete misconduct had put his department under siege.

"I know that we have been inundated from outside sources with perceptions of IC athlete behavior as part of the overall wing behavior, and the perception usually errs on the side of athletes being in unproportionate trouble," he wrote, enclosing a series of statistics that show the academy's athletes, while lagging in academics, were slightly less likely to face misconduct charges.

Later in 2014, Mueh was replaced by current Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, who was charged with setting "a culture and climate aligned with our core values."

The emails released to The Gazette show some of the troubles Knowlton faced.

Incoming freshman male athletes, for instance, had been given a PowerPoint presentation that included an admonition on "Air Force goggles." That's a local equivalent of "beer goggles," a derisive term describing the effect of alcohol on a man's perception of the opposite sex.

The freshmen were warned against consorting with their female classmates in the presentation, which included crude depictions of women.

"They wait like vultures for you to drop your guard and your standards for them to move in for the kill," the PowerPoint warned.

The freshmen male athletes were told to "Stay away from well-visited feeding sites like Dumpsters or equality dinners."

The cadets involved were disciplined for the PowerPoint and its use was banned.

Another Gazette story sparked a string of internal emails. In 2012, the paper wrote about football player Alex Means, a starting linebacker and a father.

While the story told of Means' struggle to balance fatherhood with his academy responsibilities, academy leaders feared blow-back: Cadets are barred from parenthood.

Means and the baby's mother gave up rights to the child to her parents, allowing him to stay in school.

Told of the story, former Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould sent a terse email to his subordinates.

"I have to wonder why this going to print tomorrow and tonight is the very first I've heard of the fact that (Means) is the father of a USAFA grad's baby," Gould wrote. "What's up?"

Public relations took the lead as leaders feared a media firestorm.

"By no means was this policy crafted together because Means is a football player - it's been around for some time," former public affairs boss David Cannon wrote to academy leaders. "It's just that this is a high-profile football player it may catch the attention of someone who may want to go to the chief or secretary, or perhaps someone in Congress may do something."

In another email, Gould sent the Air Force secretary and the service's top general a proposed press release about the 2012 jailing of cadet Jamil Cooks, a football standout who was later convicted of sexual assault.

"Cooks is from Colorado Springs and his family will likely talk to the media, hence my decision to get ahead of this by issuing this press release," Gould told his Pentagon bosses.

When the academy kicked quarterback Jaleel Awini off its football team in 2013 for violating the school's honor code, the public relations team at the academy was called into action.

"It was picked up by AP, thereby expanding its reach and volume, but it's not too wide at this writing - fewer outlets, but they include big hitters," Lt. Col. Brus Vidal, an academy public affairs officer wrote in an email to top brass.

Bruce Pinkleton, a public relations expert who heads the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, said the academy's focus on its public image in the wake of athlete missteps makes sense.

"Essentially what you're looking at with strategic communication is organizations that are setting goals and objectives and trying to reach them," he said.

In public appearances since the public relations push, Johnson has highlighted academy efforts to combat sexual assault and shown the school to be a leader in prevention.

Pinkleton said showing off those efforts is key to repairing the academy's image, but could backfire if leaders don't follow through on promises.

"For me, the big question is how the organization is changing its habits," he said.

Pinkleton said the academy's use of contractors to bolster its public relations push is a practice that's common in corporate America.

"It looks on its face to be a lot of money," he said. "It's hard to know what they are getting for this money."

While fixing its public relations problems, the academy says it is also fixing its Freedom of Information Act woes.

The school has been notoriously slow in responding to information requests in recent years.

Herritage said a big backlog in requests drove The Gazette's three-year wait for the emails.

"We had a 75-case backlog in 2014 due to volume, and manpower," Herritage wrote. "Law/policy requires us to handle cases on a first in/first out basis."

The backlog has been eliminated and the academy has more people processing information requests now, Herritage said.

"Your FOIA that was responded to this week is the last of the original 75 backlog cases," he said.


©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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