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NEWS | April 25, 2024

Lost in an Algorithm

By Senior Airman Mikaela Smith 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The name “Public Affairs” for our Air Force Specialty Code does a disservice to the storytellers and the overarching mission of PA. We joke within the career field that PA stands for “practically anything” because of the diversity in our mission and how we never know what new idea we will get looped into. As a Senior Airman, I am often one of the most junior members in a room. Despite this, working at a base with as many mission assets as Joint Base Langley-Eustis has, I’ve been able to critically assess PA through my limited experience.

I love being a public affairs specialist. I have been blessed with leaders who have trusted me and given me opportunities to grow and excel within this field. Every week is different from the last and the opportunities to network and grow as a storyteller are endless. I’m an operation support flyer, I’ve been on temporary duty to two major exercises, I’ve photographed the CSAF, SECAF, CMSAF, USECAF, affording me the opportunity to shake the hands with some of our nation’s finest military leaders. Life as PA is an adventure, and I wouldn’t change or trade my experience for any other career in the military. However, as the Air Force transitions and adjusts operations from counterterrorism to competition with our peer adversaries, PA must shift focus as well.

The title “Public Affairs” alludes to an organization’s relationship with stakeholders and how it’s managed. While we do serve as an important bridge of communication between tax paying citizens and the military as a whole, Public Affairs has drifted in its effectiveness as storytellers. I believe this is largely due to an over emphasis on social media.

“Our role as communicators is to be the translators between the public and the military and that sometimes gets lost,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Olivia Bithell, 633d Air Base Wing public affairs specialist. “We are not just content creators desperate for likes.”

As the information environment continues to expand, understanding social media’s role is a pivotal part in creating effects within information operations; however, it’s not the end all be all. Social media has consumed Public Affairs’ battle rhythm, and a lot of my time, along with the time of other Airmen at the shop, have been spent capturing content for the sake of having something to post. PA should not be responsible for keeping Airmen’s calendars up to date with the latest events, or a way of marketing for other units. We are strategic communicators, responsible with the release of timely and accurate information, and our effectiveness as such is being hindered when we are used as a Force Support Squadron 2.0.

Storytelling is an incredible asset to the military, but only if it’s used intentionally. Otherwise, our time gathering content for the sake of keeping an algorithm up, is a waste of time. PA has the power to greatly influence a wide audience and various efforts. However, I believe as we shift focus, we can greatly impact these three aspects through storytelling the most: public-trust, recruitment, and deterrence.

"I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon." stated Tom Stoppard, famous playwriter and screenwriter. (Reynolds School of Journalism staff, 2017)

One of our paramount functions as military communicators is our role in bolstering public trust. Being the bridge between the community and Joint Base Langley Eustis’ military operations, initiatives and personnel, we cultivate a sense of openness and accountability that is foundational to a healthy civilian-military relationship. Through various mediums, we narrate personal and professional growth, camaraderie and sense of purpose found in military service. We are charged with upholding citizens’ constitutional right, to receive and possess information and maintaining public trust and connection is a priority. “Public Affairs” is an inadequate way to convey the depth of our role.

All military branches are facing recruitment challenges. KaMaria Brave, Wavy10 journalist wrote that across the Department of Defense, “Military services missed recruiting goals by 41,000 during the 2023 fiscal year.” (Brave, 2023) Although, according to Rachel Cohen, a writer for the Air Force Times, “The Air Force has managed to reverse its misfortunes” in regard to recruitment, we should remain vigilant in our efforts. (Cohen, 2023) As PA, we have a powerful opportunity to reach target audiences through our visual information. Social media is a powerful tool to connect with individuals globally, remembering it’s not the only way we can engage with our audiences is imperative. If your intended target audience doesn’t follow you, new strategies to reach them should be considered. This may sound like common sense, but you would be surprised to learn how consumed people can get in the grind of “posting to post”.

Moreover, storytelling offers a window into the diverse and dynamic world of military service. By showcasing service members and units, we can attract future service members who are drawn to the mission and inspired by the stories of their predecessors. This will only successfully happen, if the communicators within PA are intentional.

Arguably, deterrence is the most powerful weapon PA can wield through storytelling. By effectively communicating the capabilities, resolve and readiness of our military forces, we send a clear message to adversaries: any hostile actions will be met with a swift and decisive response. We are the world’s greatest Air Force, and JBLE is the Nation’s premiere power projection platform, and with this legacy comes a commitment and strategic need to showcase our dominance. By shaping perceptions through the truth, we can reinforce the understanding that any aggression will be met with a unified and formidable response.

Storytelling is the heartbeat of all effective communication. Although we are labeled as “Public Affairs”, we go beyond information- we’re about connection. Through our content, we build trust, draw in new recruits and send clear messages to potential threats. In order to do this effectively, we need to be intentional and strategic. Otherwise, I fear our messages will get lost on an algorithm as the information war continues to expand.














Braye, K. (2023, December 27). U.S. military sees record breaking low recruitment numbers.

Cohen, R. (2024, February 18). Air Force recruiting rebounds while Army, Navy still struggle. Air Force Times.,to%20recently%20released%20Pentagon%20statistics.

Reynolds School of Journalism. (2017, March 23). Nine inspiring media quotes: Journalism, public relations and visual communication. University of Nevada, Reno.