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Public Affairs: telling the Air Force story

The 21st Space Wing Public Affairs Team

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - The 21st Space Wing public affairs office at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, consists of several divisions under one public affairs officer: command information, media relations and community engagement. Together, PA accomplishes its mission to “provide cutting edge public affairs support to affect greater understanding and public trust of the 21st Space Wing’s mission.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Arends)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — If you’re reading this right now, it’s because a journalist in the public affairs office wrote this article, and made sure it was published. If there’s a picture accompanying this article, it’s because a photographer or graphic artist created it. These examples are the better known, more visible aspects of what the public affairs office does, but what it does on a daily basis goes beyond updating the base website and producing a weekly paper.

The public affairs office at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, is broken down into several divisions under one public affairs officer: command information, media relations and community engagement, in order to accomplish its mission of “provide cutting edge public affairs support to affect greater understanding and public trust of the 21st Space Wing’s mission.” The vision of the office is to be “Air Force Space Commands premier public affairs unit developing public affairs experts who deliver innovative strategic communication that facilitates strong public trust and understanding of the 21st Space Wing's mission and goals.”

Public affairs officer
Capt. Christopher Merian is the current PA officer for the 21st SW public affairs office and has several roles. He describes his first role as being the administrative head of the PA office, while also being the right hand of the commander to ensure he is prepared and has all the information needed when involved with the media, community engagement and communicating the commanders messages and priorities to Airmen. This includes preparing communication plans that outline how PA get the message released and what the key talking points will be.

The second role involves crisis response. As the PA officer, he is always on call, 24 hours a day, and will be involved in every incident, no matter how small or trivial the matter is.

“Crisis response is a big one. I won’t be the face of the crisis, but the commander, depending on what the crisis is, may very well be,” said Merian. “It’s my job to ensure the commander is prepared for any situation.”

Command information
Alethea Smock, 21st Space Wing PA, is the division chief for command information. Command information is the more visible, tangible side of PA that includes producing content for the paper, website and a weekly electronic newsletter sent to geographically separated units; updating social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram; and even includes daily operation of the photo studio in the multimedia center.

Command information contains photographers, journalists, news broadcasters and graphic designers.

Smock explained command information provides communication from the commander out to the Airmen and provides a mechanism for feedback from the base population back to the commander.

News stories, videos and graphics are mainly focused on addressing the commander’s intent. An example of this includes articles focused on taking care of Airmen.

When it comes to reporting news, Smock stresses a key aspect of the job.

“Creativity is an important part of what we do because we can take something that would appear to be mundane on the surface and make it interesting,” said Smock. “It’s our job to make the information compelling enough that people want to engage and that they remember the information we are providing to them.”

Media relations
The media relations division interacts with various news outlets, produces press releases, handles media queries relating to the 21st SW, and monitors local media as well as national media outlets, according to Stephen Brady, 21st SW public affairs chief of media relations.

If a major news outlet wants permission to fly to Thule Air Base, Greenland, to cover an event or a reporter wants to video tape a live stand up report at the “Welcome to Peterson” sign near the west gate at 3 a.m., Brady makes sure arrangements are made with security forces and other agencies.

If, for example, a fire, severe weather damage or shooting occurs on base, Brady writes the official news release that is sent out to major and local news outlets.

“Media relations is a good way for us to share with the general public the Air Force story… to remain transparent with the American people,” said Brady. “It’s a good mechanism to reach a large group of people… much larger than we might normally be able to reach with the Air Force mission and the Air Force story.”

Community engagement
Last is the division of community engagement, with a mission to be the bridge between the military service members and our community, explained Jeff Bohn, 21st Space Wing PA, division chief of community engagement.

The team works with community leadership and civic groups to help promote public trust and understanding of the military’s mission, while working with military leadership to help establish relationships with civic leaders and community groups.

For Bohn, answering queries isn’t just providing answers, but connecting inquirers with the correct functional agency that can best answer or help with the issue being addressed.

Bohn said his day could consist of answering a complaint from someone in the community followed by coordinating an office call with the wing commander and a congressional staff office to working with the local chamber of commerce, to finding a way to have a briefer educate the military affairs council on the next big initiative at the installation.

Regarding the various tasks he performs, Bohn said, “The beauty of my job is each day is I have no idea what is going to come through on an email or a phone call. So there’s a lot of diversity in what I do and it keeps me on my toes.”

Three in one
These three divisions working in unison made an award-winning public affairs team in the category of “Best Crisis Communication” from Air Force Space Command Public Affairs for handling the Thunderbird crash near Widefield, Colorado, June 2, 2016.

The command information division provided video and photo documentation of the crash site for release to the media and crash investigation team.

The media relations division kept the local and national media informed by producing press releases to media outlets wanting something to report.

Community engagement was able to draw on the relationships with PAO’s from local police and fire stations that responded to the crash, in order to ensure media stayed back a safe distance from the crash to not interfere or contaminate the crash site. They also provided information to the media before an official press conference by the wing commander could be set up.

The public affairs officer provided overall leadership and guidance to ensure crisis response messaging was released in a timely manner to media outlets and community members.

Together, these divisions are helping to bring command messaging to audiences on and off base, bridge relationships with our local community and ensure the media are kept informed.

If you work on Peterson AFB or at one of the 21st Space Wings geographically separated units and have a potential story, call us at 719-556-5185 or email us at so that we can tell your story.

Peterson SFB Schriever SFBCheyenne Mountain SFSThule AB New Boston SFS Kaena Point SFS Maui