STUTTGART, Germany – Interagency communicators from multiple government agencies discussed ways to advance whole of government communication efforts and increase areas for partnership during the U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs Communicators Symposium July 31-Aug. 2, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Representatives from the Department of Defense, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development were among the attendees at the symposium, which was hosted by the AFRICOM Public Affairs and Communication Synchronization Division.
“The whole of government approach is really important because we’re trying to make sure that our African partners and African publics know about [the U.S.’s] unwavering commitment to Africa,” said Hilary Renner, deputy director, Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, U.S. State Dept. Bureau of African Affairs.
Attendees explored ways to enhance public understanding of the impact of operations on the African continent, said U.S. Air Force Col. Chris Karns, AFRICOM director of Public Affairs and Communication Synchronization.
“A range of U.S. government agencies have a part in the story unfolding in Africa,” he said. “Each stakeholder brings a unique vantage point, powerful vignettes, and insights that may be helpful in strengthening partnership in Africa.”
During his first address at a conference since taking command, U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM commander, encouraged open and proactive communications whenever operational security allows for it. “As long as we’re conscious about safety, we should engage,” he said. “It helps our mission to engage and it helps the American people understand what we’re doing.”
Partnership was a key theme at the event, but not just in communication efforts. Partnership extends to everything AFRICOM does, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Vechery, AFRICOM deputy to the commander for military operations.
“We look at partnership not just through the lens of our African partners, we also have international and interagency partners,” he said. “We recognize that what we want to accomplish in Africa needs to be done through a series of partnerships and developed relationships where we continue to work together so we can advance towards our goals together.”
According to Carol Han, strategic communications team leader, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the recent U.S. government response to Cyclone Idai in Mozambique was a good example of coordinated communications efforts.
“One of [the] key things I’m walking away with from this symposium is partnership,” she said. “That is one of AFRICOM’s key themes in whatever it does and that same principle came into play during the cyclone relief efforts.”
In mid-March, Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe and was one of the worst tropical cyclones to hit Africa and the southern hemisphere causing catastrophic damage affecting millions.
“We needed additional assistance and the unique capabilities that the U.S. military brings, so we asked AFRICOM to help with that last mile of assistance to help bring more goods to the affected areas,” Han said.
The command, with Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa as the lead, delivered more than 800 tons of essential food, medicine, and necessary supplies to assist the Mozambican people.
However, the military was only one component of the whole of U.S. government response to the disaster. It took coordinated communications efforts to let the public know how their tax dollars were spent and why people should feel good about what the U.S. is doing to help people overseas, Han said.
“You say ‘whole of government’ for a reason and that’s not just a ‘kumbaya’ phrase to me,” she said. “I’ve seen it in action on the ground in Mozambique. We needed to work together off of the same playbook to tell everyone what was happening in this small country that many people may not even know about so that they can be proud of America’s efforts saving lives.”