Communication is about relationships, says Lt. Gen. Johnson at media forum

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson speaks to Colorado Springs leaders on communication and media relations during a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs leadership conference March 13. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Amber Baillie)

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson speaks to Colorado Springs leaders on communication and media relations during a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs leadership conference March 13. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Amber Baillie)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson spoke to Colorado Springs leaders on communication and media relations in the digital age during a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs leadership conference, March 13 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Johnson opened the conference, themed "Building Strategic Communications," with her thoughts on how technology reshapes information flow and the lessons and strategies she uses to keep the public accurately informed on Academy issues.

"Thanks to the digital revolution, we are able to attain information faster than we were ever able to do so before," she said. "The ease at which information can be accessed has created an expectation that people should be informed. Communication isn't about press releases - it's about relationships. It's letting your constituencies know that you care enough to include them."

Johnson asked the police officers, firefighters, city and county officials and other community leaders, "In a world without boundaries, where communication happens at the speed of light and usually with the swipe of a finger, how do we, as leaders, keep up?'

An important first step is recognizing times have changed, she said.

"The Internet and associated technology is bringing a revolution along with it," Johnson said. "It's happening whether we like it or not and so we might as well embrace it. Participating in conferences like this, where we can take the time to really think about leading in the digital age and do so with our peers -- the men and women who are sharing the journey with us -- is critical as we continue to grow and develop as leaders."

Johnson said key character traits "Baby Boomers" and "Millennials" share today include authenticity, care, humility, courage and trust.

"These classic leadership qualities still matter, perhaps even more now that online profiles and video teleconferences limit the meaningful face-to-face interactions of when we were younger," she said.

Johnson said she's learned repeatedly that adaptability and flexibility are critical when it comes to communicating.

"Being able to flex and adapt to the conditions is one of the greatest assets I think a leader can have," she said. "Part of being adaptable, especially in the highly dynamic environment of the digital age, is a leader's capacity to channel the right knowledge to the right people at the right time in the right place. You don't have to know or do everything yourself, but you need to ensure you surround yourself with those who do, and trust them to do it."

Wherever possible, communicators should endeavor to remove barriers, Johnson said.
"Over the last 8 months at the Air Force Academy, this is one area where I've really tried to make a difference," she said. "We have started communicating more. We've identified a number of important constituencies, ranging from community leaders like you, to parents and graduates, who are interested in the decisions we make and why."

Transparency and communication go hand-in-hand, Johnson said.

"You have to build trust and the only way to do that is to be honest and authentic," she said. "Since my arrival at the Air Force Academy, we've been focused on transparency and for us that includes the media in a huge way."

The Academy is a public institution, so the public has a right to know what it's doing, Johnson said.

"Our media operations are designed to target audiences with Air Force messages to convey the Air Force core competencies to a broader audience," she said.

During Johnson's first six months as superintendent, she said she had to promptly respond to questions and concerns on events including the Government shutdown, the words 'so help me God' in the Academy's honor oath and on the Air Force's Office of Investigation's Confidential Informant Program.

"We've learned that we have to adapt to improve our communications practices," she said. "Our public affairs offices at every Air Force base around the world endeavor to deliver truthful, credible, accurate and timely information to enhance the public's understanding and appreciation for what we do."

Johnson said Academy cadets continue to serve thousands of hours in the community, break athletic records and contribute to research, helping the Air Force complete its mission.

"The question is, 'How can our relationships with the news media outlets help us get these messages out?'" she said. "We're trying to improve how we communicate our narrative internally and throughout the Air Force; and maintain our transparency to provide context for the inevitable negative stories. From the very beginning, I knew I needed to engage the media and open a dialogue. I want to be accessible and ensure that the other leaders at the Air Force Academy are as well."

The Academy has increased the amount of information they share through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Johnson said.

"With a steady, predictable drum beat of information we let our cadets, staff and faculty, graduates, parents, and community partners know what's going on," she said.

Johnson said the Academy also conducted an embargoed press conference where reporters were informed by the institution's leadership team on how 2015 budget reductions would affect the Academy.

"We worked really hard to get out ahead of it, to be transparent and to communicate," she said. "In being transparent, and in trusting them with this really important information, we hoped to strengthen a relationship--a relationship that benefits all."

Johnson said the Academy hasn't yet mastered communication but thinks it's on the right track.

"Our leadership team is moving forward with a unity of effort and we have a singular and increasingly crisp vision of who we are," she said. "I hope that at least something I've said this morning will resonate with you as you hear from the rest of the speakers today and engage in thoughtful conversation."

Kory Dabb, a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department, said he thinks personal communication and interacting with people face-to-face is almost a lost art form.

"With social media, you don't always know who is sending the message or how the person on the other end is interpreting it," he said. "I think that can be a difficult challenge from a leadership position. It was interesting hearing how General Johnson handles situations like that on a daily basis (and) is able to remain proactive and move forward."

The conference was organized by the School of Public Affairs, Center for the Study of Government and Individual, and the Leadership Conference Steering Committee.