How to cope when staffers trade PR duties for military duty

When PR pros report for tours of military deployment, it can take a toll on a firm. But, as Hamilton Nolan finds, there are resources and tactics that help firms and staff recover from a war-related absence

When PR pros report for tours of military deployment, it can take a toll on a firm. But, as Hamilton Nolan finds, there are resources and tactics that help firms and staff recover from a war-related absence

PR is not generally known as a martial profession. Machine guns don't help write press releases, and battle tactics are limited to combating unfriendly media outlets. But it does have some real live troops in its midst.

Military reservists have made their way in the agency world, with some becoming quite successful while simultaneously fulfilling their obligations to the reserve.

But the dynamic changes in a time of war. Part-time service members quickly become full time, and agencies must cope with the loss of personnel, often on short notice. In our current national atmosphere of war without visible end, dealing with military employees is more important than ever.

Sean Clements spent seven years as an active-duty marine before joining the reserves and going to work for Galeforce Communications near Philadelphia in 2000. At the time, his commitment to the reserves was manage- able: one weekend a month and two full weeks each summer.

Last July, Clements was called up for a tour in Iraq. He was a public affairs specialist during his time in the reserves and led media relations surrounding the infamous battle for Fallujah.

Galeforce spread Clements' work around to the other employees while he was gone. But in December 2004, while he was still in western Iraq, the agency was forced to close after losing a large account (not due to his absence).

Clements had planned on returning to Galeforce when he got back in March; instead, he is still temporarily employed with the Marines while searching for another agency position. But war experience, he says, prepares military public affairs specialists for high-pressure communications jobs better than anything else could, and firms should consider that.

"Of course, there's the time issue and the possibility they may get called up again," he concedes. "But the firm [could] look at it as an investment."

There are laws governing the hiring and firing of military personnel. Wayne Travers, an account supervisor at Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek and a retired Army National Guard officer, volunteers as an ombudsman for the Connecticut Employee Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Defense Department agency whose mission is to maintain good relations between employers and military employees. He says that most companies have a sincere desire to do the right thing, legally speaking, which means following everything from antidiscrimination measures to timetables of how long service members have to go back to work after returning home. They simply have to be educated how. "The key to any deployment, long- or short-term, is just to stay in touch with your employee," he says. "Make them feel like things are going to be OK."

Edward Howard & Co., an independent agency in Ohio, is following Travers' advice. Its administrative office manager, an Army reservist, was recently called up for duty in Iraq. The agency has hired a replacement, but says that her job will be waiting for her when she returns.

"We will make sure we keep in touch with her," says Marilyn Tomasi, an SVP in Edward Howard's Columbus office, "not only keeping her up to date about the happenings here, but ... having her share experiences with our colleagues, as well."

Military obligations have not kept some PR pros from handling major accounts. Adam Clampitt, a Navy reservist, leads Hill & Knowlton's Wal-Mart account in California. He is a public affairs officer in the Navy, noting that he does "kind of similar jobs" on both sides of the fence. When he reports for duty, others at H&K step up in his place.

"It's seamless," he says. "It's become a great process."

Another added benefit for Clampitt is the fact that he sometimes works with the same media outlets in both roles. "The fact that you meet reporters and you meet people in the media as a member of the military gives you a larger level of credibility when you're actually reaching out to reporters as a member of an agency," he says.

Employees in the military

  • >Use resources like the ESGR to determine exactly what your agency's rights and responsibilities are

  • Stay in contact with employees on military deployment to boost their morale

  • Take advantage of the crisis management skills that military service teaches

  • Understand that it may take an employee some time to transition from a war zone back into civilian life
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