On Point

20 Questions with Rear Admiral John Kirby

The Pendulum
Jan 25, 2015 · 14 min read

In the spring of 2008, I was sitting at a table with the late Ike Skelton, former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, longtime congressional representative from Lexington, Missouri, as we discussed the finer points of the draft of what would become the Army’s capstone operations manual, Field Manual 3–0. We explained the shift toward a more commander-focused approach, the increased emphasis on emergent design thinking, and why we felt it was so important to address information. “The narrative,” I said, “is the lost component of strategy.”

Chairman Skelton looked out over the top of his glasses and responded. “You know who understands this? The Navy. They have the best public affairs in the business. You could really learn a lot from them.” Nevermind that his son, Ike, was a Navy Captain and public affairs officer. I dutifully captured those words in one of those ubiquitous green notebooks, though the ink had long since faded when I finally had an opportunity to validate that statement.

Rear Admiral John Kirby was the Navy’s Chief of Information, negotiating the Twitterverse under the handle @CHINFO, when I first encountered him. Almost from the outset, his presence was markedly different from the average flag officer who ventures into the social media melee. His tweets were consistent, crisp, and far from scripted. They carried the weight of someone who thinks before they post. Rare enough, surely, but even more refreshing considering the responsibilities of his position.

Then he became a household name. Elevated to the position of Pentagon Chief Spokesman, Admiral Kirby became the person behind the microphone, standing in front of the blue Pentagon curtain, delivering the news of the day straight from the deeply-varnished oak walls of the E-Ring. Typically, America sees three consistent faces on the news: The White House Spokesman, the State Department Spokesman, and the Pentagon Spokesman. John Kirby became “that guy” to most Americans.

I soon understood what Ike Skelton meant that spring day in 2008. Through some of the most tumultuous times in recent memory, Admiral Kirby maintained his cool while serving as our country’s top crisis communicator. Because, let’s admit it, the Pentagon Spokesman isn’t there to spin good news stories to entertain a gleefully-ignorant public. He’s there to give it to us straight, whether we can take it or not.

The problem with being the Pentagon Press Secretary is that no one ever really gets to know who you are. You might be a household name, but you’re forever remembered as “that guy”, like an anonymous character in a long-forgotten episode of Seinfeld. And that’s why we’re here today, to turn the microphone around on Admiral John Kirby, to reveal the man behind the blue curtain.

1) What’s the average day like for the Pentagon Press Secretary?

One of the things I like most about this job is that no day is average. Not only are the issues complex and ever-changing, but so, too, is my schedule.

That said, I do strive for a little bit of structure. I workout early, try to get to the office by 0645. Spend the next hour or so getting up to speed on operations, intelligence and the news.

My first meeting with the Secretary is at 0815, and then we’re off to the races with daily and/or weekly staff meetings. Not surprisingly, much of my day is driven by the Secretary’s schedule and by the news.

I try to preserve the afternoons for drop-ins by the press corps, phone calls, getting through my inbox, interviews, and my twice-weekly press conferences.

I’m typically out the door by 1830 or so, but that obviously fluctuates given world events.

2) The amount of information you deal with on a daily basis has to be astronomical. How do you manage it all?

I do the best I can on my own, monitoring the web and social media, as well as the always-on TV in my office. I’m never far away from the blackberry or the iPhone.

But the best situational awareness comes from the action officers on our press desk. They’re amazing, far more plugged in than me. And they have a finer sense than I do about what will make news, when and by how much.

When I really need to know something, they’re the ones I call.

3) What drove your decision to join the ranks of Public Affairs?

It wasn’t a decision at all.

Back in 1990 I was teaching at the Naval Academy. I had just completed my division officer tour aboard a guided missile frigate, and I began to look around at other officer communities into which I might be able to transfer.

Another instructor I met there, with whom I became good friends, was also interested in a lateral transfer. But neither of us could decide which field to select. So, we grabbed a paper plate, used a marker to draw eight “slices” of pie on it and wrote the names of various officer communities in them. We devoted a slice for intelligence, cryptology, supply corps, and others. We even carved out a slice to the Coast Guard, hoping for an inter-service transfer.

Then we grabbed a tongue depressor from the academy clinic, drew an arrow on it and tacked it onto the center of the plate. Every day for two weeks we spun the tongue depressor. And every day for two weeks, it landed on something different. Finally, we shook hands, pledged that today was the day… and here I am.

Once I got into the community, I made every effort to learn the craft and become proficient. But becoming a PAO was the best decision I actually never made.

4) The late Congressman Ike Skelton once told me that the Navy creates the best Public Affairs professionals. Is this true and, if so, why?

I’m very proud to be a Navy PAO. And I’m very proud of the good reputation we have earned over so many years.

I think a large part of that is the rigorous process by which we select people into the community, the responsibility we give our young PAOs early on and, quite frankly, the healthy attitudes towards public affairs espoused by senior leaders in the Navy.

There was a time, right about when I came into this line of work, that public affairs was considered tangential, something unimportant to the functioning of our service.

Not anymore.

There’s a whole generation of leaders and line officers in the Navy who understand the importance of good communications and who invest their trust and their time in public affairs. That makes all the difference.

I see that same appreciation and dexterity in the other services as well.

The Army, in particular, has come a long way over the last decade. Army public affairs officers are some of the most energetic and flexible communicators out there, and they get better each and every year.

And senior generals seem to get it, too. They know that if the PAO is informed, energetic, honest and most of all skeptical, they stand to gain. They know what good public affairs can do for mission success.

War will do that.

5) Let’s switch topics on you. How do we counter the ISIS/Daesh narrative?

By taking every opportunity we can to expose their brutality for what it is. And that means being just as fleet of foot as they are.

The old saying is true: A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes.

It doesn’t matter how right we are, how just or how precise, if we can’t share our story in a timely manner.

I think we’re getting better at this, but there is more work to do.

Another important element is media access. There’s nothing better for truth-telling than the power of critical, independent media reporting.

We’re working hard to offer better access for media to our troops and our missions in Iraq, and I think that will make an enormous difference.

6) Can we be successful in the Middle East without a strong narrative?

No. But we also need to understand the limits of narrative. A good story is never going to be enough. It has to be supported by action and progress and sound policy. And if our actions don’t reinforce the narrative, we set ourselves back even more. It’s the “say-do” gap we’ve got to watch out for.

7) Are there ever days when you don’t feel like a professional crisis communicator?

Nope. Not one. And that’s OK with me.

Being reactive — and reacting well — is really important in my line of work.

I absolutely hate it when commanders complain about public affairs being too reactive or not proactive enough. There’s a place for proactive efforts, of course. You always want to think and plan ahead.

But if a PAO can’t properly react to what is an increasingly fluid and fast information environment, he or she needs to hang up the skates. They aren’t doing their command — or their commander — any favors.

It goes back to what I said about being fleet of foot. We don’t ever want to put out bad information in the interest of speed, but neither do we want to surrender speed for want of information.

If you’re not shaping the story from the outset, you aren’t going win the battle of narratives. And today that means reacting well … in seconds, not minutes.

It’s not about being reactive vs. proactive. You’ve got to be both. But if you can’t do the former really well, it won’t matter a whole heckuva lot how well you do the latter.

8) The Pentagon Press Corps features some amazing up-and-coming journalists. Who do you think are the heavy hitters of tomorrow?

This is a great question I’m going to shamelessly side-step, because I will undoubtedly leave someone out. But you’re right, there is an impressive stable of young reporters covering the military right now.

I’ll also tell you this. The Pentagon Press Corps as a whole is the most professional, ethical and talented group of media in this town. They know this building and this beat better than most of us in uniform. And they care passionately about it.

I consider myself fortunate just to spend time with them. And I always learn from them.

9) You recently had the pleasure of managing the announcement of the resignation of the Secretary of Defense. How do you prepare for something that you really can’t prepare for?

By being good at being reactive! You can’t be afraid to shoot from the hip a little bit and change direction.

10) You have proven yourself to be the Pentagon’s “Yoda” of social media. Any advice for your peers?

To be honest, I didn’t always think very highly of social media. It took a lot of convincing to bring me into the 21st century. I came to it kicking and screaming. But now I really appreciate the dexterity of it, the freedom that social media gives me.

First, you have to look at social media as a tool — not THE tool, not a panacea, and not a suitable replacement for good relationships — but a useful way to share in an important conversation space. We ignore it at our peril.

Second, be authentic. Say it on Twitter the way you would say it to a friend. Don’t get hung up on the lexicon and the hashtags and the chatter. Just share. People don’t just want access to information. They want access to conversation.

Finally, don’t staff it out. Do it yourself. Nobody tweets for me. Frankly, that’s why even I don’t tweet for me as much as I should. The hours these days are crowded. But at least all the tweets are mine.

11) What advice would you offer for a new Public Affairs professional?

When I promoted to Lt. Commander, I figured I needed to get serious about this business. So I wrote myself a set of rules. I still read those rules and try to follow them. And now I give them out to junior PAOs to consider.

I’m attaching them here. It’s pretty much the best advice I can offer.

I also came up with a reading list for PAOs. It’s a couple years old, and I’d probably add to it a little these days. But as I look at it again just now, I think it’s still a pretty useful collection. The point is not to get hung up on professional reading, but rather expand your tastes and reading experiences.

The number one skill PAOs need to develop is writing. And there is no better way to write well than to read well.

12) The service culture has evolved significantly during your time in uniform. How can we be more successful at mentoring young leaders today?

I think the best way to mentor is to listen. Mentoring is not about teaching. It’s about understanding. And you can’t do that if you’re always in a “let me show you how to do it” mode.

Junior enlisted and officers are smarter today, more sophisticated and better informed than we were back in the 1980s. That doesn’t mean they don’t need support and guidance. It’s just that they need it in a little more sophisticated manner than bubbas like me did.

And they want to share in that mentorship. They want to give back, push back and really engage in a meaningful relationship. They will choose their own mentors, in accordance with what they believe are the most important traits and experiences. We need to respect that. Formal mentoring relationships seldom work.

And we seniors need to remember that mentorship is a two-way street. We can learn a lot from those junior to us. We just have to be a little humble and willing to listen. Back to social media. I needed a lot of help from a lot of junior personnel to grasp the power of social media. And I’m sure they’d tell you I wasn’t the best pupil!

13) You’ve had the opportunity to work with and around some of the greatest leaders of our generation. Who stands out as the most “at home” in front of a microphone?

That’s a tough one. I don’t think there is one who stands out as the most “at home.” Each of the leaders I’ve had the privilege of serving really understood the power of public speaking and media engagement.

Secretary Hagel speaks plainly, simply. Secretary Panetta was great at injecting humor. And Adm. Mullen had a way of boiling complex issues down to their fundamentals. He was a great “explainer.”

14) Who were your greatest influencers as a young leader?

My parents, first and foremost. Dad was an enlisted Sailor in the 1950's and a mechanic the rest of his life. The most humble man I ever knew. Worked hard every day. Never once tried to be anything but himself.

He believed good work was, by itself, reward enough, that a sense of humor cured almost any ill, and that you could always spot a gentleman by how he treated someone who could do nothing for him.

He was also a great story-teller. Once he started in, you just wanted to park yourself next to him for the rest of the night. Hilarious and eloquent.

Mom sold real estate and was darn good at it, too. From her I got my love of language and rhetoric and reading. Words matter to Mom — how they are used and what they convey. She would have made a great English professor.

I think I’m comfortable at the podium largely because of her. And wouldn’t you know it, she sends me a critique after each and every press conference.

Brutally honest, too. She never misses a single mistake I make.

As an ensign, it was Radioman Chief Baker who influenced me the most. He took me under his wing, overlooked my stupidity, and forgave my pettiness. He was everything a chief petty officer was supposed to be: hard when he needed to be, soft when could be.

Chief Baker didn’t just teach me how the radios worked, he taught me how to take care of the radiomen. He made me understand that no one succeeds alone, and that no officer can lead without being willing to be led a little himself.

I’ll never forget the day he insisted I use his rack to take a nap in the middle of the day, knowing I’d been up for nearly 36 hours and that I couldn’t get away with sleeping in my own stateroom. The XO has strict rules about that.

He took care of me the same way he took care of his Sailors.

He led me.

And of course, Adm. Mullen’s style of leadership has always been a model I’ve tried to emulate. He is expansive in nature and very open-minded. He actively seeks dissenting views and fresh perspectives, always willing to admit he doesn’t know enough.

I have to work hard to be like that. It takes a lot of energy. But when I get it right it feels really good.

15) What motivates you? What is your passion in life?

Learning. I enjoy going to bed at night knowing I learned something new, whether it’s from a mistake I made or a book I read or a conversation I had.

I love being curious.

And I absolutely love history, always have. The first chapter book I ever read as a kid was a biography of John Paul Jones. Been reading and studying history ever since.

It’s not only fun for me, it’s instructive. History isn’t always a perfect guide, but if used appropriately history can help leaders avoid a lot of mistakes and even find new opportunities.

I think Truman had it right: The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.

16) What makes you laugh?

Seinfeld. I’m a huge fan of that show. Just thinking about some of those episodes cracks me up.

One of my favorites is the one where Kramer hires a college intern for his company, Kramerica Industries. The school threatens to pull the intern when they find out Kramer is running the company out of his apartment — which may or may not contain a chicken coop.

“And with Darren’s help,” Kramer says, “we’ll get that chicken coop.”

Now that’s good spin.

17) I heard they are creating a role for you in the new Top Gun movie. Who should play you?

How cool would that be!

I guess they’d have to find someone short, with thinning hair and a bit slow on the uptake.

Maybe George Costanza.

18) iPad, tablet, or old-fashioned books made from dead trees?

Oh, dead trees definitely. Nothing like the feel of a good book in your hands, especially an old copy.

That said, I do own a kindle. It’s much easier for travel.

19) Tell me about the last good book you read?

“They Also Ran,” by Irving Stone. Found an old copy in a used book store down in South Carolina. The book was originally published in 1943. It’s about some of the men who ran unsuccessfully for President — how they lost and the impact the loss had on their lives.

It’s brilliantly written. Not only did I enjoy learning about some leaders I never knew, but I found inspiring the stories of how they overcame — or didn’t overcome — failure on a grand scale.

I was particularly taken by his chapter on Horatio Seymour, the man who lost to Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. Seymour had been mayor of Utica and then served two non-consecutive terms as governor of New York. Stone writes eloquently of Seymour’s humility and his integrity, of his reluctance to run and his stoicism in defeat. Seymour was never bitter. In fact, he was almost grateful in loss.

“I find that I could have done without my successes far better than without my failures,” he said.

What a great lesson for life. Mistakes really can be our best friends.

20) What’s next for you?

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity Secretary Hagel gave me. This job has been a real and honest privilege. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that.

As for what’s next, I honestly don’t know.

Maybe I need to go buy another paper plate.

Ike Skelton was right.

    The Pendulum

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