Northern Strike 19 advanced storytelling workshop develops multinational public affairs professionals

07.29.2019
Story by 1st Lt. Andrew Layton
110th Wing  

ALPENA, Michigan – “Good pictures take time,” said the man at the podium. He clicked through image after image, lighting the otherwise dark auditorium. Each photo told a story of two of the most famous faces in American history: Obama and Reagan.

Photographer Pete Souza, former presidential photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama gives a presentation during the Northern Strike 19 Advanced Storytelling Workshop at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Alpena, Mich., July 19, 2019. The workshop hosted 36 students and mentors from six states and two partner nations, Latvia and Bulgaria. Northern Strike 19 is a National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise uniting service members from more than 20 states, multiple service branches and numerous coalition countries during the last two weeks of July 2019 at the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, both located in northern Michigan and operated by the Michigan National Guard. The accredited Joint National Training Capability exercise demonstrates the Michigan National Guard’s ability to provide accessible, readiness-building opportunities for military units from all service branches to achieve and sustain proficiency in conducting mission command, air, sea, and ground maneuver integration, together with the synchronization of fires in a joint, multinational, decisive action environment. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Pete Souza personally took each of these images while serving as White House chief photographer, witnessing – and capturing – some of the most historic moments of two iconic presidencies. Now, on July 19, 2019, he was sharing from his vast catalogue of experience at a multinational workshop of public affairs professionals assembled at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Mich. Taking place on the eve of Northern Strike 19, the workshop assumed a strategic relevance with participants poised to cover the Department of Defense’s largest annual joint, reserve component exercise.

“It’s hard to just walk into a situation, take a few shots and walk out saying, ‘I’ve done a good job telling that story,’” said Souza. “You’ve got to spend time with your subject and connect with them in a way where you actually know what that story is.”

The audience, comprised of 39 public affairs personnel representing Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Arkansas, the Virgin Islands, Latvia, and Bulgaria, sat spellbound. Souza’s presentation capped a robust, three-day curriculum (July 17-19) that expanded horizons, pushed comfort zones, and ultimately forged close relationships between the diverse assembly.

The Northern Strike workshop is an extension of the vibrant collaboration between public affairs counterparts in the Michigan National Guard and the National Armed Forces of the Republic of Latvia. Their bond, enabled by the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, has, in the last year, seen colleagues go from simply working side-by-side to building capability together with a series of workshop events in Latvia.

“Last year we celebrated 25 years of the Latvia-Michigan partnership. During this period of time we have succeeded with many achievements in our military partnership and strategic communications; public affairs is one more cooperation we are looking forward to deepen,” said Anete Gnēze, head of the Media Relations section of the Military Public Affairs Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Latvia. “This workshop gave an insight into the strategic communications challenges that we face nowadays and mutual understanding that only together can Allies overcome them, by cooperating and sharing knowledge and experiences.”

While the Latvia-based workshops have been focused to enhance the professionalism of public affairs augmentees in Latvia’s National Guard battalions, the Northern Strike event was open to numerous states and partner countries to multiply knowledge-sharing opportunities laterally.

“What we are offering here can be boiled down to three things,” said Master Sgt. Scott Thompson, public affairs specialist, 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich. “One, we want to talk about the big-picture aspect of our field – what a strategic message is and some of the opportunities we have as public affairs professionals in a very dynamic media environment. Two, we want to underscore what it means to be a storyteller and how to produce more compelling, people-focused content with strong technical skills. And finally, it’s inspiring and motivational to come together as professionals and build relationships, especially with our State Partnership Program colleagues here. It’s important that we know each other and that we message together with one voice, especially as we enter a significant event like Northern Strike 19.”

Thompson, one of the workshop’s lead instructors, was joined by a panel of highly-experienced military and civilian mentors, including Souza, to deliver a memorable approach to storytelling techniques that can be leveraged to deliver a command message with compelling, human-interest material.

The presentations offered a different perspective of public affairs from what is traditionally taught in U.S. military courses, with speakers including representatives from both the Latvian Ministry of Defense and Bulgarian Air Force to address threats and opportunities NATO allies face in a dynamic media environment.

“My first time attending Northern Strike this year really opened my eyes,” said Airman Wynne Shaw, public affairs specialist, 182d Airlift Wing, Peoria Air National Guard Base, Illinois, for whom the workshop was her first temporary duty assignment. “Seeing how other people in my career field showcase the military’s operations in an artistic way gave me a drive and inspiration to enhance my own skill set…it helped me to see a bigger picture of what we’re capable of.”

The workshop was staged under the National Defense Authorization Act 16 (NDAA 16), section 1251, which authorizes multilateral military-to-military training events between certain North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries.

“As NATO partners our job, which is closely related to mutual cooperation and teamwork, has to cover the many international trainings, exercises and operations,” said Maj. Nadezhda Topurova, chief of Public Affairs, Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria. “In this aspect such workshops improve communication, the quality of public affairs work and the fulfillment of our ultimate goal – to increase the reliability and trustworthiness of the military from the NATO countries.”

Underscoring those bonds of trust and mutual resolve is something that Thompson sees as a huge opportunity for public affairs professionals, especially in the context of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, which unites members of U.S. National Guard entities with the national armed forces of a partner country to build mutual defense capability and cross-cultural relationships.

“Pete Souza made a great point that photography is all about making a connection,” said Thompson. “But it really is the same thing in any field, and especially in the military. No one – and no nation – can be successful alone, and that’s why effective, people-focused storytelling is such an important technique for us.”

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