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Public affairs chief takes stock of tumultuous year

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Information is a critical element of national power, and public affairs personnel have a role in how the government and military employ that element, the outgoing principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs said March 12 here. 

"Information is absolutely part of diplomacy and success on the battlefield," said Robert T. Hastings, who is stepping down after a year as the top public affairs official in the Defense Department.

Mr. Hastings became principal deputy on March 10, 2008. Later, President George W. Bush nominated him to be assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, but the nomination never reached the Senate. He was one of the former President Bush appointees asked to remain at his post after the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Breaking down the walls between services and within the public affairs community was Mr. Hastings' first priority upon taking office, he said.

"Where I think we have made the biggest gain is just re-establishing and rebuilding the sense of community within public affairs," he said during an interview. "The sense of pride, the sense of mission and building that across the silos -- not just Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines (and Defense Department) silos -- but even within public affairs."

Public affairs traditionally is split into four areas of concentration: command or internal information, media operations, community relations, and plans.

"That's what I attacked first, and my sense is that's where we made the biggest progress," Mr. Hastings said. "Public affairs is a community. We have a common role, and we can accomplish more working better among ourselves than staying in our silos."

A responsibility to inform their fellow citizens is something every member of the military public affairs community understands, he said.

"The public must know and understand and really has a vote on what we are doing in the (Defense Department)," Mr. Hastings said. "And we are also communicating with the world. I think that information element of power is very important, and I think public affairs is square in the middle of that."

Terrorists understand that public opinion can be swayed, Mr. Hastings noted, and prey on signs of weakness in public trust. Public opinion can be as important to success as victory on the battlefield.

"That thinking may have crystallized a bit in the past year," he said. "I made a real effort to work with the combatant commands, the field commands and the services and the other players on the National Security Council to ensure that public affairs was vital."

Government leaders are talking more and more about the concept of strategic communications, Mr. Hastings said, and public affairs has been successful in helping to shape the idea.

"There is a formal definition of the concept, but beyond that I think it is the synchronization of images, actions and words to accomplish our national objectives," he said.

Synchronization of information functions is key to the concept, and is at the heart of the reason many people do not understand or feel comfortable with public affairs in strategic communications, Mr. Hastings said.

"It is not integration or merging -- it is synchronization; public affairs remains public affairs," he explained. "It is not part of information operations. It is not part of psychological operations. It is not deception. What we do and how we do it isn't changed by strategic communications, but we have to be synchronized so that the messages that we promulgate and disseminate through our public affairs channels are complementary to what is out there in the rest of the communications spectrum."

Public affairs needs a vote on what strategic communications does, Mr. Hastings said. That means public affairs personnel need to be close enough to the concept to understand the goals and objectives of strategic communications, and to convey that to the various audiences.

"I think public affairs should be pretty close to leading the strategic communications effort," he said. "It depends on the effort. In some cases it might be public affairs, in others information operations. In some cases, it might be led by the State Department or (the U.S. Agency for International Development) or some other agency."

But however that happens, he said, it requires leaders capable of moving ideas forward, and the public affairs community must develop workersgrow personnel who can do it.

Senior public affairs officers must have the experience and gravitas to lead such an effort and advise commanders in this new information age, Mr. Hastings said.

In the past, journalism was a strong focus for public affairs officers. 

"That's a skill that's important in development," he said. "But by the time you are the adviser to the (commander of U.S. Central Command), you are into international relations and diplomacy and understanding economic power and understanding how the economic forces of the world move."

Mr. Hastings said he's tried to ensure the services are selecting, developing, training and preparing senior public affairs officers for that role.

"We've made some progress, (but) there's a lot more there left to do," he said. "My challenge to everyone we are leaving behind here is to keep the focus on that."

Interagency cooperation has improved largely because of the example set by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Hastings said, noting they had a strong relationship and went out of their way to work on that.

Mr. Hastings spoke about his trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to most of the combatant commands to understand the environment that troops and leaders were operating in.

"Equally important was to visit the public affairs troops that we have out there," he said, to ensure the people doing the work had the resources they needed to perform their missions.

Mr. Hastings said he doesn't know what public affairs will look like in five years, but that there are hints about the future.

"I hear combatant commanders talk about public affairs and strategic communications more than ever now," he said. "The leaders know the power of communications and the roles played. So that is a hint that it will be more important in the future."

The Defense Media Activity is another hint. The organization grew out of the latest Base Realignment and Closure Commission findings and has placed the command information assets of the services and the department in one unit.

"We've just taken half of the public affairs community worldwide and put it in one joint command," he said. "Five years from now, the impact of that will be that public affairs will essentially be a joint function. You'll still wear an Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps uniform, but you are going to think and act and behave jointly."

New media and social media also are changing the face of communications, Mr. Hastings said, adding that he sees that continuing.

"I think we will no longer think in terms of channels to communicate with audiences. Channels are going to change so fast," he said. "Facebook is so hot today, but Facebook may be gone tomorrow, replaced by something else. Public affairs personnel will have to think in terms of message and audience, and then use whatever channels are available. The impact of that could be profound."

Mr. Hastings has worked closely with Secretary Gates, and said he will remember the secretary "as the best boss I've ever had."

"To my mind," he said. "he epitomizes what I call the patriot civil servant."

Secretary Gates called his previous job as president of Texas A&M his dream job, yet he came back on duty when President Bush called him, Mr. Hastings said. Before he succeeded President Bush in the Oval Office, President Obama asked Secretary Gates to remain on the job with his administration.

"President Obama called him, and again, he said yes," Mr. Hastings said. "Over his entire career, (Secretary Gates) has always put his nation first. And that really is him."

Though Secretary Gates is the "most intellectual" boss he has ever worked with, Mr. Hastings said, the secretary retains a strong identification with servicemembers and their families, and is constantly asking about their well-being.

And the secretary understands communications and sets an example, he added.

"The only guidance he gave me when I came in was to help him help this building better react to bad news," Mr. Hastings said. "He understands that our obligation in a democracy is to make sure our fellow citizens are fully informed of what we're doing, how we're doing it and why we're doing it.

"I suspect that history will judge him as among the best to have held his job," he said.

Mr. Hastings will leave for a job in the defense industry. His last day is March 13.

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