Media relations can be a challenge for any organization. For many Public Affairs pros inside the Pentagon, media relations never stops. It comes with the territory when you’re at the headquarters for the most powerful military the world has ever known in arguably the most politically charged town on the planet.
Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician has been at the center of the fray for quite some time now. For the past year, he’s led the Current Operations Division, known as the “press desk” to insiders. It is the hot bed for all things media and all things controversial for the Air Force. Beforehand, he worked on the “press desk” at the Department of Defense level. In other words, he was a spokesperson for the Secretary of Defense. Yeah, no pressure there.
From Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya operations to multi-billion dollar aircraft purchases and everything imaginable in between, Todd Vician is charged with providing counsel to Air Force leadership on how to manage these issues and ultimately get the message right. It is one of the most pressure-infused PR jobs in D.C., because the stakes are incredibly high.
Not often does a PR pro’s daily portfolio include billion-dollar backed issues, hundreds of thousands of military members, communities across the country, and 535 elected officials who are often just across the river and care deeply about what you’re up to.
Before he leaves this job, I wanted his perspective on doing PR for the Air Force, what it takes to do it well and what it means to serve the country in the U.S. military. Here’s what he had to say.
1. How does your average day go as the director of Current Operations at Headquarters Air Force?
Our days are often focused on trying to make long-term progress despite addressing short-term challenges. How do we get the public to better understand the Air Force and our issues while keeping “news of the day” in the right context. From the day I entered the Air Force I’ve heard that people will support us if they just meet the Airmen who do our mission, so we have to bring Air Force leaders to the public through interviews and responses to inquiry. Unfortunately that’s often difficult to do for a variety of reasons.
2. What type of leadership challenges do you face in this job?
One of the biggest challenges, and regrets, I have is getting beyond the e-mails to helping solve problems, focusing on the people of my staff and the headquarters rather than the issues.
3. What’s been the most challenging issue to manage and why?
It’s not been one issue, but instead helping to maintain the Air Force reputation. The reputation with the public (so mistakes made, usually with good intentions, are understood in the context of our successes and great people); reputation with the press corps as we balance their deadlines with our processes; and reputation with the leadership we serve (a repeat of the challenges with the press corps). Maybe it’s better said as expectation management and that’s something we work daily.
4. What skills are required to be an effective Air Force Public Affairs officer (PAO)?
Obviously good communication skills — including summarizing issues and presenting the information to your boss for a decision (“this is what you need to know and these are the communication effects of a decision). Also connecting the dots — what does an article, Congressional comments, or Airman feedback mean, and what should we do? And then leadership. A good PAO is really a good officer. In 21 years I’ve rarely worked alone, and always benefited from the efforts and skills of my staff, so we’re really leading more than being a PAO. I think these are skills most people have, and ones we can improve with practice, mentorship, and learning from our experiences.
5. What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
One event doesn’t stand out. I have had great experiences in every assignment, letting God direct our paths.
6. What does it mean to you to serve the country?
Serving means putting others first. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Freedom isn’t free.” I don’t like that saying because for many people it is free. They have never sacrificed or served others. I’ve been blessed many times over by serving others, and have served alongside others who have sacrificed so much more than I have.
7. How was your deployment experience doing Public Affairs?
It’s tough leaving, rewarding doing, and awesome returning. In Afghanistan I learned more than I thought I would, especially working with the other services, NATO countries, State Department and the Afghans. I remember a conversation with an Afghan colonel about media relations, thinking I had all the answers. He had experience, and while his methods weren’t 21st-century answers, he knew the issue, players and a good course of action.
Lt. Col. Todd Vician is the Chief of Current Operations for the Secretary of the Air Force’s Public Affairs Directorate. He leads a team of commissioned officers, civilians and noncommissioned officers who provide counsel on media matters to Headquarters Air Force leaders and information to national and international media. He entered active duty in 1990 and has served at various group, wing and headquarters units. He has deployed to Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Spain, and Italy while supporting overseas contingency operations. He commanded an Air Force squadron in the United States and while deployed supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Lt. Col. Vician has also served as the public affairs advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force, been assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a press officer for Central Asian issues, and served in the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command’s Combined Joint Operations Center. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Relations and Journalism from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a Master of Mass Communication degree from Arizona State University.