Modern communication is quick and convenient, and has dramatically altered the way the Air Force fights. Air Force information systems provide each Airman with direct and immediate access to the world.
While information systems such as email, webpages, electronic transfer points and data links vitally enhance productivity by providing massive amounts of information to each Airman, they also allow each Airman to send information out to the world. Today’s professional Airman must be aware of the capabilities of these information systems and their responsibilities while using them.
Entire library shelves are filled with books on professionalism, and hundreds of articles online suggest guidelines and tips for professional communications. While these tools are useful for everyone, Airmen have the additional benefit of several documents providing official guidance on professionalism. For personal interactions, written communications and use of information systems, the Air Force has provided clear guidance for how Airmen are to conduct themselves.
At the most basic level, The Enlisted Force Structure charges all enlisted Airmen to be professional regardless of rank. When it comes to written communications, The Tongue and Quill fully details almost every communication situation and document encountered in the Air Force.
Chapter 12, Electronic Communication, is an especially useful resource. All Airmen should review this section of the T&Q to ensure they are complying with the Air Force’s expectations of a professional.
Lastly, another useful guide is AFMAN 33-152, User Responsibilities and Guidance for Information Systems. Chapters 3 and 4 contain comprehensive lists of inappropriate personal uses of internet and telephone capabilities. You may want to review these lists to ensure you are not in violation of them. Also, you may not know that section 188.8.131.52 of AFMAN 33-152 specifically prohibits slogans and quotes in signature blocks.
Some of these documents may seem overwhelming because they are quite specific. However, there are consistent concepts behind those documents which you should already be familiar with — the Air Force core values.
Airmen can use the Air Force Core Values to evaluate their professional communications as a gut check before referencing the above guidance. The concepts of “Integrity First,” “Service Before Self,” and “Excellence In All We Do” have clear applications when we use information systems.
Consider your integrity and the use of the internet at work. The Air Force allows several morale websites, including Facebook, YouTube and ESPN. Are you spending hours a day on them? Could you be pursuing online training, following career related news, or reading leadership key messages and policy changes?
How about Service Before Self? Do you place the Air Force first when submitting routine documents and performance reports? Do you take the time to research and evaluate these administrative processes, week after week to make reports better, or do you just copy, paste and walk away?
How about exhibiting excellence in quick emails or message chats? Do you pay attention to the details of appropriate customs and courtesies, including proper forms of address and a signature block in emails?
It’s on this last item of digital communication I would like to focus on. As professionals, we must particularly be aware of the long-life and simple transport of the typed word. Emails, documents and even chat logs remain available long after they are initially sent. And as anyone who’s clicked rapidly through the computer log-in notifications knows, the Air Force monitors everything we do on information systems.
Airmen must, repeat must, consider all communication on information systems to be viewable by anyone at any time. Emails sent specifically to one co-worker can easily be forwarded to another, with unintended consequences. Personal chat logs on government systems are saved, and can unexpectedly become public chat logs. Additionally, all Facebook and blog posts are reviewable when done from work.
To compound the danger of digital communication further, digital information lasts so long that embarrassing or damning evidence can appear years after its first creation. Any email, blog post, chat log or document saved which is unprofessional could result in official discipline, remedial training and embarrassing apologies, with resounding consequences to your unit’s reputation and your personal career.
The only defense you have against such danger is to be professional at all times. The professional Airman does not have to worry about embarrassment or discipline, because reviewing their digital communications will only bring credit to themselves and the Air Force. The Tongue and Quill Chapter 12 is an exhaustive resource to use for creating professional digital communications, but here are some key suggestions to ensure your communication remains above board.
First, ask: are you using appropriate customs and courtesies? Are you submitting inquiries through the chain of command? Are you replying to only interested parties in your emails? Are your emails professionally formatted? Full terms of address, properly formatted documents, filled subject lines and attached signature blocks show quickly that you are a professional and expect to be treated as one.
Second, consider if a face-to-face or phone conversation is more appropriate than an email or chat message. Are you discussing something personal, airing grievances, or telling a joke? Perhaps you would not like your private conversation to become public later.
Third, consider emotions, tone and perception. Are you using phrases, inside jokes or cultural references that could be misinterpreted by someone who doesn’t know you well? Your co-worker may understand your hilarious irony and sarcasm based on your personality, but will her supervisor? Some may suggest the use of emoticons here to help with tone, but the abuse of a smiley face quickly becomes just as unprofessional as an ambiguous tone. Better to simply be concise and clear.
Last and most important, have your wingman check your communication, before you send it. Your wingman can check formats, give insight on tone, suggest additional or less information, do a spell check and back you up later if anyone comes with questions. An easy way to be professional is to work with professionals.
In conclusion, all Airmen are specifically charged to be professional. This responsibility for professionalism extends to our communications using information systems. As Airman, our emails, internet uploads, chat programs and Word documents all need to reflect our Core Values.
Utilize the written Air Force guidance and your own trusted wingman to ensure the professionalism of your communications. Finally, consider carefully how long modern communication lasts, and how damaging or supportive it can be to your professional image and that of your unit. We all ultimately represent the United States Air Force. Take pride in your professional communications and protect that good name.