Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AFA chief hires PR helper

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2016 at 4:44 PM

Johnson: Getting help with the academy's image.
  • Johnson: Getting help with the academy's image.
Running a prominent university can be a pretty tough job. Just ask Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, where sexual assault reports, for example, were way up last year over the previous year, according to a recent Defense Department analysis.

Add to that the desire to put a shine on the service academy, and the job is so daunting that Johnson has enlisted a crisis communications expert to help her.

Larry Holdren, owner of Holdren Strategic Communications LLC of Highlands Ranch, has been working for an undisclosed amount to help her under a "Gratuitous Service Agreement" that began in January 2015. That's one year after Holdren started his company.

The agreement, says AFA spokesman Meade Warthen via email, was approved by the Air Force General Counsel and says Holdren is "to volunteer his services to the Air Force Academy with no expectation of compensation by the Air Force."

What a business model!

But Holdren isn't going away empty-handed. According to Warthen, "He is compensated by the U.S. Air Force Academy Endowment, which is a private organization, not a governmental one." That means the Academy Endowment doesn't have to disclose how much Holdren is being paid.

The endowment is very well endowed, having raised $100 million, much of which supports the academy with construction projects including the Center for Character and Leadership Development building.

The rationale for Holdren's hiring is to put a good face on the academy for recruitment purposes, Warthen says. "As a leading public university," he writes, "it is critical that we work to enhance our reputation nationally in order to continue to attract and retain the most talented prospective cadets, faculty and staff, and Mr. Holdren is providing a critical role in helping us do that."

Holdren accompanied Lt. Gen. Johnson on three trips in 2015 as part of her "ongoing national outreach activities." These included stops at the National Press Club, Fox News, FoxNews.com, Huffington Post and New York Times, among others. Johnson spent $3,159 on these trips — to New York (twice) and Washington, D.C.

The trips were funded by discretionary gift funds in support of the superintendent's outreach efforts, Warthen says.

As for the question, "Why Holdren?", we can't answer that. But Holdren's website has this description of what he does:
Simply, if you need help solving a complex communications challenge, we're your firm. If you find yourself stuck and need experienced strategic thinkers to help you get unstuck, we're your firm. If you're in an industry that faces opposition, we're your firm.
According to his bio included on his website, Holdren says he played "senior roles" several places, including Centura Health. So we checked on that one and were told that he worked at Centura from July 17, 1997, to Feb. 12, 1999, as a "public relations specialist." We'll leave it to the reader to decide if PR specialist is considered a senior role.

We asked him a few questions via email, BTW, but haven't heard back. We'll update if and when we hear something.

Regardless, Holdren made a big score for Johnson last spring by persuading CNN reporter Richard Quest to come to the academy during graduation week, when he took a ride with the Thunderbirds. Quest was in the news himself in 2008 for a rather unsavory incident.

We asked last year why the superintendent chose to give Quest such insider access, considering the 2008 arrest, and Warthen replied in an email then, saying:
Mr. Richard Quest is a distinguished journalist with CNN, who is internationally renowned for his coverage of people and places throughout the world. We feel that Mr. Quest's stellar professional credentials and ringing endorsement by CNN made him the right person to draw positive national attention to the U.S. Air Force Academy during graduation week with an interview with Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, our Superintendent. Furthermore, his videotaped Thunderbird orientation ride helped publicize the fact that America's Air Force, and the air power it epitomizes, is second to none in the world. With 35 million viewers worldwide tuning in, Mr. Quest and his CNN team provided a rare look at some of our fine Airmen, their capabilities, and America's newest crop of leaders, the commissioned officers of the Class of 2015.
Anyhow, Johnson's normal three-year stint at the academy is nearing an end, unless President Obama decides to leave her there for a fourth year as was done with her predecessor, former superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould.

Otherwise, she'll be moving on or retiring, which has been the tradition for academy superintendents. It's usually their last hurrah before exiting the military. But word has it Johnson, still in her mid-50s, is seeking another assignment before retirement.

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