The Public Relations Strategist

Training Day: U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Receives 2016 Best of Silver Anvil

July 22, 2016

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime: three childhood friends traipsing through Europe on summer vacation. And it was certainly memorable, just not for the intended, carefree reason.

On Aug. 21, 2015, U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos of the Oregon National Guard and Anthony Sadler, a senior at California State University, Sacramento, had left Amsterdam and were on a train bound for Paris when a lone gunman began firing shots.

Led by Stone, the trio overtook the gunman and halted the attack, and Stone provided life-saving first-aid to a wounded passenger, while suffering multiple stab wounds in his neck and extensive hand injuries from a boxcutter.

The U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Directorate mobilized a crisis communication strategy immediately following the incident. The story generated worldwide attention, as the three men received the French Legion of Honor and met President Obama. Air Force Public Affairs sought to provide the public with accurate information about what happened, secure print and television interviews and various media appearances, as well as to communicate a positive image of the Air Force and its airmen, all while ensuring that Airman Stone made a full recovery. As a result of its efforts, PRSA presented Air Force Public Affairs with this year’s Best of Silver Anvil.

The Strategist spoke with Brig. Gen. Kathleen A. Cook, director, Air Force Public Affairs; Wendy Varhegyi, chief, Air Force Engagements Division; and Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, director, Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, at the 2016 Silver Anvil Awards Ceremony on June 9 at the AXA Equitable Building in Manhattan. They, along with Capt. Trisha Guillebeau, action officer, Air Force Media Operations, were on hand to accept the Best of Silver Anvil.

This campaign involved cross-country and international public affairs teams working together. How did you organize the communication across borders and among teams?

Kathleen A. Cook: There’s a saying out there that says, “Luck favors the prepared.” We have been, for a while now, working in a very collaborative and integrated way to get at some deliberate communication. Processes were in place and procedures were available.

And so when this happened and Airman Stone stepped up and met the challenge, we worked with our European counterparts, we worked with our public affairs folks in New York, California and Washington, D.C., and thankfully, because of the way we’d been operating for a while now, that integration and collaboration worked, and we were able to get to the most deliberate and most strategic answer. And so it was something that, when you say “Luck favors the prepared,” I don’t think Stone would say that he was lucky to be on that train that day, but I think certainly, for national security, it is lucky that he was.

Airman Stone was ready because the Air Force gave him the tools and the training that allowed him to be agile and adapt, and to overcome in a way that we train for every single day. He and his friends were prepared and ready to meet that challenge, and our communicators were the same.

Glen Roberts: There were so many people who were working this. I was very fortunate to be with Spencer, but there was a massive amount of reach-back at the Pentagon. There was a massive amount of reach-back in Europe from the Department of State, people that were helping from the ambassador’s office. The real challenge of this whole thing was speed.

Immediately after this happened, within 48 hours, [Stone] was meeting the president of France and receiving a medal, and he didn’t even have his own clothes. The three of them received the highest medal that France offers in a polo shirt and khakis, because it was all they could come up with in 36 hours while he was injured and basically still numb from the medicine from his very serious injuries.

It was a very quick thing, and we had to react very quickly with media training. We had to coordinate with the Department of State. We had to coordinate with international media and translators. So much of this was in French, so there were a lot of circumstances early on that made this a unique situation.

Also, only one of them was military. The other one was a national guardsman, and one was not military at all. So we had three very different sets of individuals, and they came together very nicely into one team.

After the train incident, news coverage continued for 13 days. As the story evolved, how did the communications plans change over the course of nearly two weeks?

KC: The first plan always changes, but because we had the process in place and the machine was built to prepare and be ready for a crisis communication situation, we got a good start. When you become a global interest overnight, you have to respond quickly.

We were able to do the research and figure out what was going to be the best thing for Airman Stone and his family, and the two others involved, but also put the Air Force story out there. And we were able to do that. Initially, we were able to identify the key locations that would get us the national interest and participation without wearing out Airman Stone, which was always something that was in the front of our minds.

Wendy Varhegyi: We started the international outreach with an interview with The New York Times by phone, which began the whole initiative. And then, it took some time to coordinate and get [Airman Stone] healthy, because he had medical concerns, first.

Then we had a two-week block of time that we planned out, which was partly in New York and partly in Washington, D.C., because we were balancing the needs of the military services and Department of Defense wanting to recognize all of their contributions. We worked high-level awards ceremonies, visits to the White House, visits to senior leadership, as well as our major Air Force conference. We balanced all that with the demands on [Stone’s] time for media interviews, and we weighed the pros and cons of each request, ensuring that we were not overloading anybody’s schedule. And so this was really a compact two weeks that we planned out for him; it was a pretty tight time.

KC: We saw two challenges rather quickly. When you have an event like this, the world wants you, and they want you first, and they want you only. The challenge of being able to support all of the requests and the exclusives that were coming in, that was really challenging from a communications standpoint. How do you determine which ones to do? And I thought the team did that exceptionally well.

And then the other challenge was that Airman Stone and his two friends are going to be of interest for a very long time. So how do you balance telling the story and taking care of the airman, and actually providing an end date, where that airman needs to get back to work, and he has to have some kind of normal life again? The priority was to make sure that he was healthy at the end of this, both physically and mentally. And so, having an end timeframe, I think, was as important as trying to figure out what we were going to take on from the very beginning.

What were some of the media appearances and televised interviews that the Air Force coordinated for the three men?

GR: We had options from the “Today” show to “Good Morning America.”

WV: “Ellen” was in the mix too.

GR: We ended up [choosing] Megyn Kelly, which was a full hour. It was prime time, and it [featured] all three gentlemen together. There was a comfort level for them and [the fact that] all of their families were able to participate as well. That, to us, was a huge bonus. And you can see how relaxed they were during that interview.

You can see how they felt very comfortable and played off each other, and they still stuck to key messages and represented the military very well. And they also represented their families and their community well, and that was, I think, due to the fact that they had so much support from their families, from the military and from the media training that they had received. I think, all told, it was an excellent opportunity.

WV: Part of it was just pure logistics, because some of the requests we got were for all three together, and timing didn’t work out for that to happen for all three of them. Spencer was the only one who was injured, so he had some different requirements and wasn’t able to be the same places that the other two were. So “Jimmy Kimmel” [also] ended up being, timingwise and reachwise, a good choice for us.

There was criticism and social media backlash after Airman Stone’s promotion to staff sergeant, as well as an altercation at a bar the following October. [On Oct. 8, 2015, Stone was stabbed repeatedly in the torso while defending a female friend near a bar in Sacramento, Calif.] How did you control the narrative in the wake of those two secondary crisis situations?

KC: Any time there’s a significant event followed by a rapid promotion, it’s understandable that people might wonder how that happens. We have programs in place that are put there, policies that are already approved for that purpose exactly.

He and his friends did not have to step up that day. But they were prepared, they were ready and they were selfless in their act, and that truly is extraordinary. And as a service, it is important in the Air Force that we recognize that above and beyond. It truly represents every one of our core values and what we expect of our airmen, and Airman Stone did exactly that that day.

So you take that, and you help people understand that this is the way we live every single day. And this, although extraordinary, recognizing our folks for that work is what we do, and it is right.

How will the Air Force move forward from this and keep the momentum going, and ensure that Airman Stone and his friends do not simply experience their “15 minutes of fame”?

KC: I think highlighting Airman Stone was somewhat easy, because he came with the core values that the Air Force trains in us from day one. And so, as he spoke and as he presented himself and represented the Air Force, it was a consistent message and what I think America expects of its Air Force, which is that service-before-self approach. And then, obviously, the other two are excellence in all that we do, and integrity.

So to continue the momentum is to just continue to highlight our airmen and put them forward to America so that they know what our men and women are doing for them. It’s so important that we take these opportunities, because what we really want to do is inspire young people to come and serve. It is a wonderful experience; serving and supporting national security, especially in this environment today, is critical. And when they have an Airman Stone that they can look up to, who’s now Staff Sgt. Stone, that’s a wonderful, wonderful image. We’re all very proud.

What does it mean to be receiving the Best of Silver Anvil?

KC: It’s a huge honor. We’re so pleased that PRSA offers a platform that highlights the expertise and all of the hard work of professional communicators.

Being selected as the best is a highlight of my career, personally, but I can probably speak for the rest. We’re here today representing 5,500 public affairs professionals who work hard every day to tell the Air Force story.

This career field can be a bit risky and a bit rough. But it’s something that we’re all passionate about, and it’s a labor of love. And when you can come together and integrate an effort, collaborate in the way that we did and be able to tell the story in the way that we did, all the while making sure that Airman Stone was healthy at the end of it, it’s something. So we’re very pleased to be here and very honored.

Renée Ruggeri
Renée Ruggeri is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. Originally from Warwick, N.Y., she has bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from the University of Richmond and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

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