By Kieth J. Hamel, WPAOG staff
The media, as with most things, plays a large role in how the nation and the world view West Point.
Most people learn about the mission of the United States Military Academy and what’s happening around Post via the media, especially social media nowadays. Yet, the media does not have unfettered access to cadets, faculty, and leadership nor the grounds of West Point. To receive the access needed to play their role in shaping the public’s view of the Academy, the media—everything from local newspapers to national cable programming—must first receive permission and coordination from the West Point Office of Public Affairs and Communications, which operates under the Department of the Army regulations.
“We receive approximately 1,200 media queries a year, everything from obtaining a photograph for publication or
fact checking West Point information to arranging a full-blown, multi-hour national television program,” says Theresa Brinkerhoff, Public Affairs Division Chief for the United States Military Academy. Public Affairs’ mission is to communicate and promote the overall USMA mission: “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.” “We utilize every possible means to disseminate the value of the Academy to the American public,” says Brinkerhoff, “including external media.”
However, before releasing the resources of the Academy to external media for their own readership or viewership, Public Affairs considers how the media will shape public sentiment of West Point in four specific areas: 1) as the premiere leadership development institution; 2) as a national symbol of selfless service; 3) as a cultivator of character growth; 4) and as a community that is dedicated to excellence. “Everything we’re about impacts at least one of these four areas,” says Brinkerhoff. “It’s how we determine what media events and activities are supported in addition to the 250 mission assignments the Academy’s G3 office tasks to PAO.” So, for each specialty project that would potentially shape how the nation and world see West Point (documentaries, entertainment events, media coverage, etc.), Public Affairs first asks, “Do these provide an opportunity or engagement to showcase USMA’s mission in one of the four key areas?” “We’re extremely lucky that we’re asked all the time to participate in media engagements; however, knowing we can’t support everything, all productions must provide significant benefit back to the Academy to tell our story, meet legal and DA-level approvals, and receive a green light by the Superintendent,” says Brinkerhoff. “Protecting the status of the West Point brand is definitely our most important job.”
Fox NFL Sunday “Salute to Veterans” (2019)
One of the more prominent events that Public Affairs shepherded to highlight the West Point brand to a national audience was Fox NFL Sunday’s “Salute to Veterans” show in 2019. For the last several years, Fox Sports has been doing such a show at a military base around the world (last year it broadcast from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar). On November 10, 2019, the game-day crew that previews up-coming games spent as much time discussing the cadets, alumni, and history of West Point as they did breaking down that Sunday’s football matchups.
The show began with a message from 2005 Distinguished Graduate Award recipient Mike Krzyzewski ’69. It also featured a history of Army Football, narrated by Alejandro Villanueva ’10, who was the starting left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, and it included a segment on the Long Gray Line, narrated by Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Throughout the show, viewers learned about R-Day and got glimpses of the 47-month cadet experience. The hosts of the show also regularly interacted with cadets, approximately 1,000 of which were seated in bleachers in front of Washington Hall, the site of the Fox NFL Sunday stage that day. “Today, America saw firsthand the leaders of character we have here at West Point,” said Lieutenant General Darryl A. Williams ’83, the Superintendent of West Point at the time.
Months of planning went into the production, during which time representatives from Public Affairs worked with the Fox Sports production team on everything from erecting a stage on the Plain to providing the Fox NFL hosts an opportunity to experience an Army Football game at Michie Stadium the same weekend. Fox NFL had a nine-day set-up, and it took more than 250 crew members and personnel to successfully produce this elaborate show. The Public Affairs Division was able to collaborate with talented producers and operations staffers to create a patriotic extravaganza like no other. Additionally, assistance from practically the entire enterprise was solicited to make the show a success. West Point’s Visual Information and Multimedia Division also supplied B-roll footage that was incorporated into several of Fox NFL Sunday’s programming packages that day. Rod Conti, vice president of studio remote operations for Fox Sports, estimated that it cost more than $1 million to broadcast live from West Point and that their program reached approximately 14 million viewers. “For us, it was a salute to the troops, and it’s a Fox Sports tradition to get that message out to the rest of the world,” said Conti. “What better way than show off the beauty of West Point—it was pretty much the top of the hill for us in this realm.”
COVID Graduation (2020)
In addition to the Fox NFL Sunday “Salute to Veterans” show, Public Affairs has helped showcase West Point to America with Fourth of July and Christmas concert shows. “Over the years, because we have established relationships with partners who’ve worked with our team and with the Academy, our audience has grown to become a national one,” notes Brinkerhoff. “The national level is now our standard.” West Point Office of Public Affairs and Communications’ own stories now regularly surpass a half a million views on its social media platforms, and, given that they are often picked up by “Big Army,” it’s not unusual for an Academy story to exceed the million-view mark.
One of the most successful (and stressful) events that the Office of Public Affairs and Communications produced and disseminated was the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2020, with a special assist from the West Point Association of Graduates, which provided funding from graduates for a live-stream broadcast so that families, friends, and the entire nation could celebrate this event. For the broadcast, the Visual Information and Multimedia Division directed a 30-minute documentary that celebrated the Class of 2020, highlighted the mission of West Point, and had special messages from the USMA Leader Team, 50-Year Affiliate Class members (the Class of 1970), and several notable graduates.
“That graduation, which people should remember occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, was our Woodstock moment,” says Carmine Cocchia, Visual Information and Multimedia Division Chief for the United States Military Academy. “We had to do something that hadn’t been done in 43 years (hold Graduation on the Plain) and had to do it under strict COVID protocols.” In order to pull it off, the Office of Public Affairs and Communications had to direct audio engineers, lighting gaffers, staging crews, and a broadcast production team. They also had to secure interviews with cadets, USMA leaders, and graduates while adhering to masking and social distancing. Finally, they had to do it all in a short amount of time. “Planning for Academy events typically begins six to eight months in advance, which means our first meeting for Graduation occurs in December, right after the Army-Navy Game,” Cocchia says. “But then the Academy shut down for COVID in March, and we had only weeks to make Graduation 2020 happen.”
Cocchia remembers the USMA G3 office briefing General James McConville ’81, the 40th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, about the Graduation 2020 plans. “I’m sure you can do this” the general stated. “Yes, sir!” the G3 replied. “That’s why we are the United States Military Academy,” boomed McConville.
“It was the proudest moment of my career,” says Cocchia. “By putting on that event, the grit, tenacity, and perseverance of all the military service members and civilian workforce showed the rest of the world that the U.S. Army does not take a knee and will succeed at all costs.”
The Power Team
Brinkerhoff and Cocchia have each been communicating and disseminating the West Point story for more than 30 years. “When I started, not everyone had a computer at her desk,” jokes Brinkerhoff. “And I was around to create the first .avi file at West Point that was streamed by the Department of Electronics and Computer Science over the Academy’s internal web service,” says Cocchia. Given their more than half a century of combined experience the two are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to promoting and protecting the West Point brand.
Not only that, the two each have very senior staffs. Brinkerhoff leads a team of 12 on the Public Affairs side, and Cocchia leads a team of 18 on the Visual Information and Multimedia side. “You can throw anything at us, such as the flooding disaster that occurred in July, and we can respond quickly and effectively,” says Brinkerhoff. And, unlike any other college’s or university’s public affairs office, Brinkerhoff and Cocchia work for a place that is not only an academic institution but an Army garrison and a historic site as well. West Point is also federally funded, which brings standards and challenges that other institutions do not have to face. “We constantly have to secure and protect West Point’s national and international reputation,” Brinkerhoff says.
In her division, Brinkerhoff is responsible for media relations (about 50 on-site visits annually), media response, documentary requests, community engagements (everything from support to veterans groups and requests for assets such as the West Point Band, Color Guard and jump team to arranging personnel to participate in West Point Speakers Bureau events), public queries (approximately 3,200 emails annually), parent relations, command information (e.g., the Pointer View, West Point’s news resource), and five official Academy social media platforms (creating and disseminating fresh content on multiple platforms every day).
Cocchia and his team are responsible for handling 3,200–3,300 work requests per year, supporting all large audiovisual events, taking pictures, capturing video, and producing high-end productions and live-stream broadcasts of basically every newsworthy activity that occurs around Post, always telling the West Point and Army story. “Nights, weekends, holidays—we are constantly working,” says Cocchia. And the effort has paid off: the Visual Information and Multimedia Division won an Emmy in 2021, was nominated for one in 2022, and was recently nominated for two entries for 2023: “Inspiration to Serve: Honoring the Legacy of the Long Gray Line” and the “2022 Army Football Entrance Video.”
This one-two punch—Cocchia producing content pieces and Brinkerhoff distributing them through her channels—has resonated with the audience, especially when their stories focus on cadets. “We had 500,000 views on the wrap-up of 2023 Cadet Field Training,” notes Cocchia. “It’s always a win when we put cadets front and center.”
“We take pride in making products that highlight the cadets’ character growth and development during their 47-month experience here,” says Brinkerhoff. Furthermore, cadet-focused products have a broad reach, given that cadets come from all 50 states as well as from selected international countries each year. “If just one person sees our products and can see themselves as someone willing to serve their nation in any capacity, then we did our job,” she says. “The Office of Public Affairs and Communications plays a huge role in bringing these stories to fruition and getting them out to the masses”—and ultimately shaping, of course, how the world sees West Point.
Read the complete Fall 2023 edition of West Point magazine here.