In 2018, the United States Air Force published a data report that showed the presence of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances in the water supply of various bases, including Whiteman AFB in Missouri.
In November 2022, a news reporter and investigator from KOMU-TV8, an NBC affiliate television news station located in Columbia, Missouri, began investigating the USAF report. In addition to the PFAS information in the report, they also found public documents showing that asbestos was discovered in a building scheduled for demolition at Whiteman AFB.
The reporter contacted media operations at Whiteman AFB to inquire about the PFAS and asbestos and requested an in-person, pre-recorded video interview. The reporter did not provide pre-interview questions, just a vague request for more information about the PFAS and asbestos and what was being done to mitigate the situation. She also provided her deadline date which was a quick turnaround.
Acknowledging the Potential Crisis
The media operations team decided that an in-person, pre-recorded video interview was not in Whiteman AFB's best interest, and, due to the reporter's approaching deadline, they provided a detailed written response over email. In the email, they notified the reporter that the PFAS found on the base was not a threat to the local community nor those working on the base.
A written response was preferable and less risky than a recorded interview because the reporter did not provide pre-interview questions. This approach also allowed for an opening comment on community assurance and safety.
Constructing a Thorough Response
The response was carefully constructed with input from subject matter experts on PFAS and asbestos and approved by senior leadership. It was then released to the reporter by the media operations spokesperson.
EXAMPLE OF WHITEMAN AFB'S RESPONSE
The 509th Bomb Wing and the Department of the Air Force take seriously our commitment as stewards of the environment to protect human health and natural resources at Whiteman Air Force Base and our surrounding partner communities. We are dedicated to continual improvement of our processes and methodologies that reduce waste, promote pollution prevention and enhance safety while fulfilling operational mission requirements.
As part of a broad Air Force-wide analysis of potential environmental impacts associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that may be associated with our mission activities, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center is conducting a CERCLA-based response to address PFAS in the environment at Whiteman AFB. Two PFAS compounds were components of aqueous film-forming foam used at Whiteman AFB and other military installations to control petroleum-based fires. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency established a lifetime health advisory for perfluoro-octane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. AFCEC has conducted a Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection at Whiteman to determine if the compounds are present in the environment, and if drinking water supplies are impacted at levels above the EPA LHA. In addition, drinking water samples, taken from water supply wells that draw from a deep groundwater aquifer, were non-detect for PFOS/PFOA. The 509 CES and AFCEC Environmental Restoration Project Manager have worked closely with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and routinely share progress of the ongoing response with them. Although PFOS and PFOA are not regulated compounds, AFCEC is continuing its environmental response to ensure drinking water sources are protected, and PFOS/PFOA in groundwater does not pose a risk to drinking water sources.
The asbestos found in Building 35 was properly encased during the occupancy of the facility. It was identified within the statement of work for the contractors demolishing the building, to prevent exposure during demolition and to ensure proper disposal of the materials.
Correcting the Record
On Dec. 5, 2022, KOMU-TV8 published an article about the PFAS contamination and asbestos on Whiteman AFB. The article was poorly researched, contained multiple inaccuracies and bordered on fear-mongering.
Not wanting the local community to be alarmed, and wanting to protect their brand, media operations at Whiteman AFB swiftly took steps to correct the record. Because they had an established working relationship with the reporter who investigated and wrote the article, they could reach out to them directly to alert them of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their story. This resulted in an updated article and video (see below) being published on Dec. 21, 2022.
Whiteman AFB used its established relationship with the reporter to correct the record quickly. As a public affairs professional, it is essential to understand that you depend on your relationships with media to ensure your unit is represented in the best light.
While the article and video still do not reflect positively on Whiteman AFB, they are accurate, and Whiteman AFB maintained control of the situation. They received no negative feedback from the local community and contained the possible crisis.
Be transparent with releasable information.
The response to the reporter was highly detailed and contained scientific language that could quickly become misconstrued if not adequately researched. When communicating with the media, be transparent and share only what is cleared for release while leading with the bottom line up front or BLUF. Additionally, before sharing any information with the media, make sure you run it by the proper SMEs to ensure its accuracy.
When possible, establish relationships with the local media.
As a PA professional, fostering a relationship with the local media is essential. Always be courteous and responsive. Get to know how they work and their viewpoints by following their social media channels and analyzing the content they produce.
Keep the public informed.
In times of crisis, keeping the local community and broader public audience informed is essential. Be transparent and select a spokesperson the public perceives as credible and trustworthy.
Provide written responses when possible.
Written responses are often less risky than recorded interviews. They allow you to use standardized language and have the response reviewed by multiple channels before sending. This also makes follow-up questions more manageable. However, providing written responses can appear disinterested and uncaring, so it is vital to use proper situational awareness when providing responses.
When being recorded, request pre-interview questions when possible.
Sometimes providing video-recorded interviews is necessary and can be beneficial to promote activities and inform the community. However, you should request pre-interview questions before sitting for a recorded interview. This allows you to prepare the most accurate and strategic responses. It is also a best practice to do some research on the person conducting the interview. Get to know their style of questioning, and have responses ready if they go off script.
Keep a crisis communication plan handy.
While this example did not become a crisis or reach crisis level, it is an important reminder to have a crisis communication plan that clearly outlines the steps to communicate effectively during a crisis.
Be aware and stay vigilant!
Stay informed and aware of what is going on with the local media. Try to catch inaccuracies and inconsistencies in local stories quickly and inform the proper channels. Most viral stories start as niche stories, so stay vigilant, proactive and alert to what is happening in and around your command.