USAF’s observations on the VC-25 New York flyover PR disaster

This Associated Press story contains some interesting nuggets about how the Air Force approaches major media events.  In the aftermath of their VC-25 public-relations flight over New York City, two 1st AF units (the Combat Information Cell and the 101st Information Warfare Flight) were observing the various byways of social media (blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc) and noting the public’s uniformly negative reaction.  Some of the key quotes from the article:

The Combat Information Cell’s first assessment of the event said “Web site blog comments ‘furious’ at best.” Local reporting of the flyover was “very critical, highlighting scare factor,” it added.

A search of Twitter, which allows people to post messages of 140 characters or less to a circle of friends, family or fans, showed that users were posting a rate of one message, or “tweet,” per minute about a pair of F-16s chasing a commercial airliner, the cell said.

Media coverage over the next 24 hours “will focus on local hysteria and lack of public notification,” the cell predicted. “Blogs will continue to be overwhelmingly negative.”

“Damage control requires timely counter-information,” but the opportunity for that had passed, the assessment said. The cell recommended acknowledging the mistake and ensuring it didn’t happen again.

Another update on April 28 said the story was still “reverberating, surprisingly resilient.” The tweet rate had grown to three per minute and the words “New York” had been pushed into Twitter’s list of most talked about topics. Videos of the event posted on YouTube had been viewed more than 260,000 times, it said.

By April 30, the story had faded, the cell reported. The blogs were still very critical, but it was the White House, not the Air Force, that was taking the heat, the assessment for that day said.

— Lardner, Richard.  “Air Force used Twitter to track NY flyover fallout.Associated Press, 10 August 2009.

I suppose the good news (only partially tongue-in-cheek) is that the Air Force didn’t end up taking the blame.  But Louis Caldera of the WH military office did, and paid for it with his job.  In this correspondent’s opinion the FAA Air Traffic Security Coordinator for Potomac TRACON should likewise have fallen on his sword.  But that is a battle for another day.

The interesting thing is that the Combat Information Cell identified the problem early on, but obviously the general officer grades far above them did not move with sufficient alacrity to try and remedy the situation.  The Air Force, for the most part, kept its mouth shut.  It would be interesting to know why; was it a tactical move designed to shield itself from further attention?  Did they appeal to civil authorities but get overruled?  Or did they simply not react fast enough and the final outcome (one White House staffer fired, zero Air Force staffers fired) fortuitously happened to go their way?

One of the big challenges in the future will be assessing and using this information in a timely fashion.  Right now, without any further insight, we can’t really say whether the Air Force reacted quickly or not.

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