|Public Affairs Crisis
In A Multi-Service Atmosphere
Italian Alps are a breathtaking sight in late winter. Blankets of snow
cover the winding mountain
valleys making up the region. Quaint towns
dot the landscape offering storybook vistas and lifetime memories.
Skiers from central Europe and beyond come to marvel at the beauty and
enjoy the hospitality of the people inhabiting picture postcard villages.
The unsurpassed serenity and majestic beauty of the region was fouled
February 3, 1998, when a U.S. Marine jet, flying too low and too fast,
plunged 20 people to their deaths and a nearby American air base into crisis.
about 3:15 p.m. the electronic warfare jet, an EA-6B prowler, severed two
cables holding a ski gondola above the valley floor near Cavalese, Italy.
All 20 aboard the gondola fell to their deaths. The plane made an
emergency landing 15 minutes later at Aviano Air Base. The prowler
had taken off from the base earlier in the afternoon on a routine NATO
training mission. By 3:40 the first report of the accident was on
CNN, in five minutes the first press query reached the base public affairs
office. What had been a quiet Tuesday afternoon was now crisis central
with a myriad of problems. Phones rang constantly at the public affairs
office at Aviano. The staff racked up more than 240 media queries
and 90 interviews in the first 12 hours after the accident (Public Affairs
After Action Report, 1998). Despite the hard work the story was still
unclear in media reports. The death toll changed several times in the first
hours and the nature of the aircraft’s mission was unclear. The disaster
touched the lives of people from nearly a dozen countries, the press was
concerned, the public was concerned, and military commanders were concerned.
The challenge to the public affairs staff at Aviano was to respond with
no concrete precedent from which to work. Some of the reasons for
the initial confusion are discussed in this project. It is proposed
that having a plan might have eased some of the discomfort at Aviano.
Having an approved and well-researched plan might ease discomfort in future
purpose of this research project is to identify, propose and analyze a
solution for military public affairs professionals (PA’s) to develop crisis
management skills in a multi-service atmosphere. Specific recommendations
in the form of a model may ensure clear, quick, accurate and specific communication
in crisis atmospheres where service command chains overlap. Methodology
is offered for military services to test the model and make decisions based
on empirical data. The specific problem addressed is: lack of clear
guidance and knowledge of sister service operations complicates public
affairs actions in crisis situations. The problem scope is limited to overseas
bases, where the bulk of multi-service operations take place, and is examined
in the organizational, intercultural, and mass communication contexts.
four branches of the U.S. military, for a variety of reasons, operate as
an integrated team more and more each day. Years of strategic planning
and training have imbued military leaders with the notion of "jointness"
in military operations around the world; that is why at Aviano a Marine
jet was flying from an Air Force installation in a foreign country.
Warfighting capability is now viewed in the joint context almost immediately,
but this project posits that the trend has yet to become fully operational
in the public affairs arena. Each service deals with crises in different
ways. When a crisis is service unique, crisis management and responsibility
is usually clear. When other services are involved, however, command
lines and procedures are not clear and the public affairs mission can suffer.
This paper offers a model for future planners to use when preparing crisis
plans in multi-service environments. The research used to design
the model draws heavily on established theories in communication study
and practical guides to crisis management. It is hoped that this
research offers solutions that can be incorporated into plans, regulations,
and in education for public affairs professionals at the Department of
Defense Information School (DINFOS).