Profile: Major Paul Smyth, media ops centre director, British Army

The media ops centre director for the British Army talks to Gemma O'Reilly from war-torn Afghanistan.

Major Paul Smyth
Major Paul Smyth

It is your first day in a top comms role. What do you need? Fashionable-yet-serious attire? Check. BlackBerry? Check. Flak jacket and gun?

Although dealing with journalists can sometimes mean standing in the firing line, there are very few PR roles that actually require protective clothing and arms. But Major Paul Smyth, the media ops centre director for the British Army at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, regularly finds himself in situations that can genuinely be described as 'life-threatening'. All of which puts a slow email server into perspective.

As Smyth, 38, is based in Helmand Province, PRWeek has to conduct the interview over the phone between operations while Smyth avoids the local Taliban. This makes it difficult to get under his skin, but he could not hide his enthusiasm as he told PRWeek he had just become a CIPR chartered practitioner - one of only 25 in the UK.

Smyth's main role is to chaperone journalists who want to report from the frontline. However, if it is deemed too dangerous, he takes out a combat camera team to gather information and report back on the action.

'We are a window into what goes on out here,' explains Smyth. 'Where we don't have the opportunity of putting journalists on the ground, we need to make sure that people still see what's going on.

'It is a little different from other PR jobs. I carry the same kit as the other soldiers, which includes a gun, because people will be shooting and launching rockets at you. But the team's skills-set enables us to get footage the media sometimes cannot.'

While Smyth is a soldier and deploys with a weapon, his other kit includes a camera, video camera, laptop and portable satellite dish, so he can send out stories and pictures as quickly as possible, without compromising location.

Twitter, Facebook, Flicker and YouTube all feature heavily. 'I use as many means as I can, just as I would if I were at home with a client,' he says. 'Twitter and Facebook are fantastic ways of pushing out information and images that would not otherwise see the light of day.'

Pictures from the frontline are important, he adds, in order for people at home to see what is really going on.

Smyth believes there is an appetite for people in the UK to see what is happening in Afghanistan: 'We are making the most of the fact that a lot of people are interested in what we are doing and the more chance we have of allowing people to see the good work we are doing, the better.'

While the worldwide media may be preoccupied with how many soldiers have died during the conflict, Smyth is trying to promote other stories from the country.

'Every soldier has a story to tell,' Smyth points out. 'From the chef who provides the boost to troop morale with a meal when they come back, to the guys who are fighting.'

He adds: 'There are other fantastic stories that are a million miles away from the fighting that dominates the news. But that's the challenge we face and have to work hard to overcome.'

He denies that troops are demoralised by the war: 'There is a misconception in the media that it is all doom and gloom here. People are here because they believe they are making a difference. Morale is high pretty much all of the time because we are doing the job for which we are trained.'

Smyth says soldiers feel particularly satisfied when talking to local communities and being involved in reconstruction projects: 'The security that the military brings means good work such as redevelopment can take place. Each time the guys go out and talk to the locals, there is a huge sense of satisfaction with the progress.'

Smyth decided to become a soldier relatively late in his life, after seven years spent in various PR roles in the UK. He recalls that it was a childhood ambition, but it was not until he realised he could transfer the skills he had achieved in his PR career to the Army that he decided to enlist. He has now completed tours in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Despite telling his wife, with whom he has two children, that he 'just needed to get it out of his system', he is still loving the role seven years later: 'In terms of experiences, the things that I'm doing at the moment are once in a lifetime.'

Smyth was heavily involved with the comms planning for the withdrawal of troops in Iraq, which is one of his proudest achievements from his Army career.

'To have the honour of orchestrating events in our British history like that is absolutely amazing. Deep down, although I'm a tiny cog in a massive team here, I am hoping that I'm making a valuable contribution and a bit of difference.'

It certainly beats wrestling with emails.

 

MAJOR PAUL SMYTH'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

I have had several, but Dennis Publishing was where I had my first big career break. It was dynamic, fast-moving and up to speed with technology. Its culture was to empower people to push the boundaries, so we did. My biggest break with a client has to be BeThere.co.uk, which is an ISP owned by O2. I was brought in by Bottle PR to launch the first up-to-24mg broadband service and it was a dream client.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Steve Dargan, who taught me how to shoot, edit and transmit video from rather austere locations, was a notable mentor. Photographer Robert Capa has also been an inspiration.

What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

I would tell them to never stop learning. I would also suggest to constantly challenge yourself and never give up.

What do you prize in new recruits?

Imagination and enthusiasm stand out for me. Add some common sense, a nose for a story and a willingness to learn, and that's a great start.

CV

- 2009 Media ops centre director, British Army

- 2003 Media adviser, British Army

- 2003 Founded River PR

- 2001 General manager for comms and PR, Konami Amusement of Europe

- 2000 Communications and PR manager, Gamerloft.com

- 1996 Divisional marketing and PR manager, Dennis Publishing

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