Protocol Officer

Protocol Officer

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

"Duty is the most beautiful word in the English language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less."
Robert E. Lee


There are few jobs in the Air Force more challenging and demanding on a day-to-day basis than protocol. You worry a myriad of details. Murphy's laws take on added meaning: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. You measure success by the absence of comment from your commander, and things go downhill from there. Why in the world would anyone want this job?

That's one perspective. Another is that there are few jobs in the service more rewarding and satisfying than protocol. What other job gives you the opportunity to see the fruits of your labors on a regular basis, as you work a project or visit from start to finish? A five-year tour in plans seldom offers you the chance to work a project from the ground floor up, to plan, organize, develop and execute it through completion. And yet the protocol officer does this regularly. It's a golden opportunity to shine in the presence of senior officers, and to make acquaintances that could see you through an entire career.

But it's not a job for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned individual. Nor is it a position for the lone wolves, who believe they can do it all themselves, and are egotistical to a fault. A successful protocol officer relies on teamwork, motivation, hard work, honed skills, and just a little luck. The experience you gain in protocol will stand you in good stead the rest of your Air Force career. Here's what we think it takes to grow into a great protocol officer, and a few hints to help you along your way.

Attributes of the Protocol Officer

CINCUSAFE's protocol staff published an article in the January 1991 edition of the Air Force's "Information Manager" that provides a great list of characteristics and attitudes which every protocol person needs to survive in the "high risk, high return" environment that is protocol. We've built on the foundation with which USAFE's protocol staff started.

A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.
General George S. Patton, Jr.

Organizational Skills.
You must be able to remember the most minute details, plan for every possible contingency, and perform proper staff work. Coordination is the key to a successful protocol event, whether it be a visit or large social function. Your commander probably considered your organizational skills in selecting you for the job, so you've demonstrated these traits before -- but maybe not in the pressure cooker that is protocol. Gather the information you need, plan, replan, and plan again. Document your coordination, first with memos for record of phone calls and personal contacts, then in a comprehensive protocol plan or itinerary. Identify what could go wrong, and then plan for it! (It's about the only way we have found to head Murphy off at the pass.) We have also found it's a good idea to use checklists. It works for the operations world, and can help you prevent overlooking that one, but important detail.

Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way.
Mac Davis

You never say, "That's not my job." There is nothing too demeaning, too demanding, or just plain beneath you. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If you are not comfortable opening car doors, holding umbrellas, or pitching baggage, then you need to find another job.

Great man demands it of himself; petty man, of others.

Sensitivity to the needs of others. It goes hand-in-hand with cooperation. Taking care of the little things -- adding that "touch of class" -- can make a good visit into a great one. Learn to listen. Be sensitive not only to your principal or your visitor, but to the needs of those you rely on to support the visit. Seek out their good ideas. Be sure to remember them with letters of appreciation from your commander at the conclusion of your successful event. Commanders love to sign these, and you will get quite adept at drafting them!

There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.
General of the Army George C. Marshall

You have to be able to deal effectively with every personality in the book -- good, bad, or indifferent. The success of any visit depends on working as a team with others to accomplish a common goal. Teamwork really is the key to success; you cannot do everything yourself, and if you try, you "die." You must display the famous Protocol Smile under all circumstances, no matter what is going on behind the scenes.

It is even better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.

Here's where the rubber meets the ramp for many protocol people. Can you think on your feet, or learn quickly on the job? You have to adapt to rapid-fire changes in a "high stress, high visibility" environment. If you don't stay ahead, you'll be left behind -- and it's nigh impossible to catch up. If you have done a good job of contingency planning, you'll be able (in most cases) to pull off the impossible when things go awry (in the eyes of the visitor anyway). But, we're lucky if we go 50:50 with Murphy, so be prepared to react quickly and professionally to the unforeseen or unexpected. And remember that Protocol Smile. It ought to get larger the worse things get from your perspective. Let them think you're in complete control!

Remember, gentlemen, an order that can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.
German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke

Communicative Skills.
Pretty obvious, huh? But you'd be surprised to learn (or maybe you wouldn't) that most of the problems you'll encounter in protocol start and end with breakdowns in communication. It's something we all too often take for granted, and when we do, it gets us everytime. Don't assume anything! Listen. Make sure the folks you rely on for support are listening to you, with no distractions. Confirm arrangements in writing -- it saves finger pointing later. If you don't make sure you give and receive the right information, you're in for a bumpy ride.

Doing what is right is no guarantee against misfortune. If fate means you to lose, give him a good fight anyhow.
Wm McFee

Willingness to Admit Error and Press On.Mistakes are going to happen. The key is to learn from them, put them behind you, and forge ahead no matter what. If you do, your commander can and will forgive the occasional error. Don't commit the cardinal sin of blaming problems on others, even if it's their fault. Don't offer excuses; only reasons, and then, only if asked. And even though Murphy is alive and well, he can be beaten!

Old soldiers never die. They just smell that way.

Personal Appearance.
Here's one USAFE forgot -- or maybe took for granted. Your appearance is the first thing your commander or visitor will notice about you. And as a Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force said, "You only get one chance to make a first impression." A neat appearance isn't enough; you must be exemplary all the time. Others will infer qualities of your commander from your appearance and behavior. Do your uniforms have razor sharp creases all the time? Do they fit properly? If not, have them tailored. The extra expense is worth it for the increased respect your impeccable appearance earns you. Do you keep an extra uniform within easy reach? You never know when an accident will dirty your uniform. Do you have all the required uniforms? Be prepared to wear whatever uniform your commander wears. And keep the shoeshine kit and clothesbrush handy!

Hints for Success

OK, so you passed the test. You've got the attributes it takes to qualify for training as a protocol person. In a more practical sense, your role as a protocol officer will be to create a distraction-free environment that promotes the complete and open exchange of information to resolve issues, build relationships, and/or present your organization at its best. Now, unless you have prior experience in this line of work, you'll need some tools to help you develop your skills. Obviously, we think this handbook will provide most of the tools you'll need. However, here's a few hints that will keep you out of trouble as you learn.

Getting Started.

How to handle the myriad of projects you'll face? Expend a little mental energy before jumping into anything. Sit down, decide what needs to be done. Think it through from beginning to end. Then take notes of your thoughts. Make this an iterative process. If it's a large project, sit down several times as the project progresses and think through everything that still needs to be done. Be prepared when your boss decides it's time to "stump the dummy." Consider the following elements always: who, what, where, when, how, why, and uniform.

Relations with the Commander and Staff.

Protocol is whatever your boss says it is. To do your job, you must win and keep the complete confidence of your commander and his staff. You owe the commander absolute loyalty. He or she had enough confidence in your abilities to pick you for one of the most sensitive and visible positions in your command. It's up to you to live up to those expectations.

Deal with the principal staff officers and subordinate commanders, not their subordinates. Your natural inclination will be to handle all matters at the lowest level possible. It's critical you break yourself of this habit as long as you're in protocol. It's important that you work through the senior leadership of the organization -- they need to know what the boss has asked from their section. Also, the staff doesn't work for you, they work for their boss. Let him or her tell them what needs to be done.

Having said this, remember you're dependent on the resources of the local base for support. Build relationships at the working level in billeting, transportation, MWR, etc., and learn quickly who you can rely on dependably. Once these relationships are in place, you can work directly with these capable and professional folks


We've said it already. Your commander selected you for one of the toughest and most visible jobs in the Air Force. He or she trusts you. Don't betray that trust in your natural desire to please. Get to know your Staff Judge Advocate well; you'll need his or her advice on the "gray-areas" frequently! Likewise, get your nose in the Air Force Instructions that deal with funding protocol events and accepting and giving gifts. And be "up front" with your boss. If you know what he or she wants to do is questionable, tell them so.

Expectation Setting.

Here's a practical hint for success. During a visit or major social event, be prepared to brief the principals on certain arrangements, but do it at the right time and place. For example, you haven't answered the mail if you put the car seating arrangement in the visitor's itinerary and expect him to know where he's to sit when he gets into the car. Instead, wait until you're walking him to the vehicle, and then tell him you'd like him to get into the right rear seat. Set expectations. Don't leave it to chance.

A Few More Suggestions.

Several checklists are included in this handbook. Modify them to fit your needs. Expand them, if necessary. Keep them current. USE THEM. No one can remember every detail.
  • Establish a project folder for each event. File all material relating to that event in that folder for quick reference. Set up a good filing system or data base and use it. You never know when the same visitor will return, and you don't want to propose the same itinerary.
  • Keep an up-do-date pocket calendar of all military and civilian activities. Update it from the commander's master schedule on a regular basis.
  • Establish a protocol library. We've provided several excellent references throughout this handbook you should consider acquiring for your bookcase.
  • .Keep a protocol notebook at home. It should contain whatever material you feel necessary, but as a minimum it should include phone numbers of key people and agencies
With these hints, your innate talents, and the material in this handbook, you're ready to tackle one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in the Air Force. Good luck!
Borrowed from OPR
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