Good PR is hard to find 

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I read with particular interest Pam Zubeck's article on the Air Force Academy's backroom deal with Larry Holdren ("AFA chief hires PR helper," News, March 30).

But as someone familiar with the Academy's PR apparatus, I can tell you that throwing a consultant at the problem won't fix it.

The Air Force Academy has more public-relations arms than an octopus. That includes an admissions office with its own recruiting and outreach missions, an athletics division that spends upwards of $1 million a year on marketing and advertising, and a research publicist on contract for the research director, all on top of likely the largest Air Force public affairs office outside the Pentagon. Moreover, the public affairs office executes a multi-million dollar contract with DenMar Services for photography and videography.

Put it all together, and the Academy spends about $10 million every year on PR, outreach and recruiting — or, in the words of my former colleague Meade Warthen, to "enhance [its] reputation nationally."

The people in these agencies are smart and dedicated. They want to tell the Academy's story the best way they know how. What they lacked, at least while I worked there, was a strategy — and as a result, everything was a crisis.

Holdren was a co-owner at Pure Communications when an AFA alum offered to pay for the agency to audit the public affairs office in 2014. Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson accepted. He compiled what became known as the "Pure Report" — a scathing indictment that used the phrase "news release factory" to describe the modus operandi.

As Zubeck points out, we don't know how much the Academy is paying Holdren. There's more we don't know: What is Holdren's "critical role"? Why would he be billed as a "U.S. Air Force special advisor to the superintendent," as he was during Johnson's Press Club trip to Washington, D.C., if he's not on the government's payroll?

And why did the Academy hire him through the USAFA Endowment instead of a PR consultant contract?

In other words: Not just "Why Holdren?" but "Why anyone?" And why hire someone in a manner that smells so fishy?

It's hard to see where Holdren's advice may have made a difference. We may not know until the next scandal breaks — but anyone who pays attention knows there's always a next scandal where the Academy is concerned.

The Academy responded ham-handedly to the Gazette's coverage of "Operation Gridiron," an Air Force investigation into drug use and sexual assault by cadets on the Air Force football team, and it's remained tight-lipped. Johnson promised transparency when she announced an inspection of the athletic department in August 2014, but declined to release the full results, forcing reporters to run the Freedom of Information Act gauntlet instead.

Officials have been similarly clumsy regarding sexual assault prevention and response. Does the previous year's spike in reports truly indicate trust in the system? It's hard to know for sure when people who work in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office there can't say "cock blocked" without risking censure. Johnson has talked previously about the need for people to step outside their comfort zones and talk about sexual assault. Her public affairs office needs to lead the charge.

And if the religious climate has flown under the radar lately, it shouldn't. The school made national headlines a few years ago for how it created safe spaces for cadets identifying as Muslims, Pagans and followers of other non-majority religions, but right-wing extremists still try to use the campus as a breeding ground.

Most importantly, the Academy can head off these issues at the pass by adopting a greater strategic focus on diversity. The student body remains disproportionately white, male and Christian, in contrast to a nation that is increasingly none of the above.

Diversity is missing from the "essence" document that Johnson drafted to define the Academy's mission, but cadets who are trained in a homogenous environment will not be prepared to lead a diverse Air Force.

Don Branum, a former Air Force public affairs specialist, was named the Defense Department's civilian communicator of the year for 2013. He worked at the Air Force Academy from 2009 to 2015.


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