Pentagon's new public affairs chief sets out to transform communications processes
June 17, 2009
WASHINGTON (June 15, 2009) -- When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tapped Price Floyd to run the Defense Department's public affairs operation, he gave him two basic marching orders: improve the way the department communicates -- especially to young people -- and solicit feedback in the process.
So one week into the job as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Floyd is taking a fresh look at traditional public affairs and strategic communications practices with an eye toward making them more responsive, more relevant, more inclusive and more transparent.
Gone will be the days, he said, when the department released information and conveyed messages hoping they'd reach receptive ears and eyes and convince skeptical audiences at home and abroad. The new goal will be better-targeted communications that reach groups not necessarily linked into traditional media outlets, and mechanisms that not only accept, but also solicit, feedback.
Floyd said it's evident in his discussions with Gates that he's "focused like a laser beam" on communicating better with the department's audiences.
"And he wants to hear feedback," Floyd said. "He wants to know what people think about our policies and initiatives."
Gates has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. government, including the Defense Department, communicates with its own members, the American public and the world.
"Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals," he said during a November 2007 Landon Lecture speech at Kansas State University. "It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America."
Gates repeats that mantra regularly, citing the strategic consequences of a public affairs organization he calls too slow and inflexible in light of the realities of the 21st century. That's particularly troublesome, he said, in light of a ruthless and versatile enemy that's proven capable of reaching its own target audiences through a variety of means - both ancient and modern.
"Are we organized properly ... when we're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave'" Gates lamented during a May 2008 address at the American Academy of Diplomacy.
So while Floyd is still navigating his way through the Pentagon, still meeting his staff and has yet to organize the stacks of paperwork already covering his desk, he's wasting no time getting to the task of moving the Defense Department's communications efforts to the fast track.
The goal, he said, is to take advantage of 21st-century technology and approaches and to institutionalize them so they have a lasting impact on how the department conducts public affairs.
After 17 years at the State Department, most recently as director of media affairs, and two years as external relations director for the Center for New American Security, the 44-year-old Floyd has witnessed vast changes in the way information is distributed and shared.
He's watched technology blur the lines between audiences, so a message that goes to one group is likely to reach many other groups. "You have to be aware of, no matter who you are speaking to, all the possible audiences that may hear it and then interpret it in a different way," Floyd said.
Meanwhile, the "social media" -- blogs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter, among them -- have revolutionized information-sharing. These forums have become the information tool of choice among the "millennial generation" -- the 18-to-25-year-olds Gates referred to, many of whom don't read newspapers, tune in to network news or visit official Web sites.
This is a group Gates is particularly interested in reaching, not only in the United States, but also abroad. He emphasized this point in April when asked during a question-and-answer session at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va., what he was looking for in his top public affairs post.
"I want somebody who can tell us how the Department of Defense communicates with our own people, most of whom are 18 to 25 years old," Gates said. "And somebody who can communicate with people that same age around the world, where we've got operations going on."
Floyd understands the importance of this demographic. "They are the future of recruitment, they are our future educators, they are the future people we will need to support our policies," he said. "The bottom line is, they are our future."
Floyd said he plans to expand efforts already under way at the Defense Department to tap into social media outlets to reach audiences not reachable through other, more traditional, means.
"How they communicate, and what they communicate is completely different than what we were doing just a couple of years ago," he said. "It makes no sense for us not to be a part of that. We don't play in that arena to our own detriment."
But a secondary benefit of the social media - one Floyd said he plans to extend to other public affairs endeavors - is that it promotes the kind of discourse Gates wants to develop.
For a long time, the new technologies represented little more than "a better bullhorn" to broadcast the Defense Department's messages to more people, Floyd said. "But now, that's changed," he said. "It's not just better one-way communication; it's better two-way communication. It's not just us reaching people; it is them reaching us, too."
This discussion can have tremendous payoff, he said. It gives people a way to actively participate in policy making, offering suggestions and constructive viewpoints.
But Floyd said it also makes the important point - subtle as it might appear at face value -- that the Defense Department wants to hear from the public. "What we need to do is make sure our policies are explained and understood by the widest possible audience, and that we allow that audience to respond," he said.
"They are not simply being told that this is the new policy, and they have got to live with it," he said. "Even in cases where they may disagree with the policy, because it was developed with transparency and in a way that allowed their voices to be heard, they have a sense of ownership in it. They know that their views were heard."
This approach does a lot more than simply make people feel good, Floyd said. It promotes a level of understanding that's critical to building support: understanding among the American people, understanding in the world community and understanding among local people where U.S. troops are operating.
That, Floyd said, has a direct impact on the safety of those troops and the effectiveness of their operations.
If the people of Iraq and Afghanistan understand "what we are doing, why we are there, what we are doing to help support their government and therefore, what their government is doing to help them, it makes the job of our troops on the ground a lot easier," he said.
Commanders on the ground realize that this understanding can mean "life or death for their troops," Floyd said.
"So getting it right means saving their own lives, and the lives of the people in the countries where they are operating," he said. "That makes it imperative that we get it right."