US Army Deputy Public Affairs Officer Combined Forces Command ? Afghanistan
Q. What country/area are you stationed in?
Q. What is your primary duty?
A. Until a few weeks ago, I was the chief of public affairs for Combined Forces Command Afghanistan for the first four months of my tour here. I?ve now moved into the deputy position for my last month until I rotate back to the US. I have been replaced by Col. Tom MacKenzie, who, in his civilian life, does media relations for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Coincidentally, my civilian agency, Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick, has done work for him. And now, here both of us are in Afghanistan ? it?s a small world! I am a reserve Army officer who has more than 23 years of experience ? 10 on active duty, including a tour in operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and 13 years as a reserve Army officer working in strategic communications in the Pentagon. In civilian life, I work in the Washington, DC office of Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick. (And let me just add that I actually found the job with Shandwick by answering an ad in the back of PRWeek when I lived in Houston in 1999). In July I was recalled to active duty for a six-month assignment in Djibouti, Africa, but was diverted here to Afghanistan because of my public relations agency background.
Q. What has been the most rewarding experience from your time abroad?
A. Working closely with the US Embassy and United Nations on the first Afghan presidential election. We literally watched the birth of a democracy and I will never forget the pride I saw in the people of Afghanistan. They take their newfound freedoms very seriously. They are shaking off the shackles of tyranny daily ? Afghans are survivors, and it is a humbling experience to watch them build something from nothing.
Q. What do you miss most about the states?
A. Your story won?t be long enough for my list and I couldn?t possibly narrow it down to 2 or 3 things beyond family and friends. But thinking totally selfishly, I miss my bathroom!
Q. When do you expect to be home?
A. Early February
Q. Who would you like to send your holiday wishes to?
A. My husband Doug, daughter Chelsea, son Josh, and mother Norma, who have been my foundation while I?ve been away.
Q. What was your last (if any) public sector job?
A. My second-to-last, and favorite, public sector job was serving as the public information officer for the Copperas Cove Independent School District in Copperas Cove, Texas. It was there that I really learned public relations and marketing. I was a one-person shop for a school district with 7,500 students, 1,500 employees, and 12 schools. I did community relations, media relations, employee communications and marketing. I learned a lot and, because it was a small community, I had an impact.
Q. What have your learned about public affairs/public relations from your work abroad?
A. Here in Afghanistan the mission involves combat operations, nation-building, political affairs, diplomacy , and communications ? both within Afghanistan and with the international community. Each audience is very different, the messages are different yet intertwined, and the strategies and tactics are very different. Few people in Afghanistan are literate, [many] communities do not have electricity, and news travels by word of mouth ? most frequently through senior tribal elders whose advice is sought for everything from marriage to voting. Therefore we have to understand how to effectively use the current communications network while also helping to build a new, more modern means to get news to the people. For instance, in order for the United Nations to educate Afghans on the voting process, they produced picture pamphlets, sent out traveling acting troops to do skits on voting, and stationed some 500 packages around the country containing televisions, VCRs and generators to run them. You have to learn to communicate using their trusted means of communication, which is most often through tribal elders.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?
A. Getting balanced information to the US. Things are going well in Afghanistan, [but] it?s hard to get media to pay attention. We literally have hundreds of good stories to tell, but they end up on page 21 - if at all in US newspapers.
Q. What is different about communicating to a US audience, and communicating where you are stationed?
A. Three Centuries ? literally. As I explained above, more people in Afghanistan get their news by word of mouth than any other source. Most only truly value what their tribal elders tell them. The little media that existed here prior to the fall of the Taliban was state-run and not trusted. Additionally, few Afghans can read and many do not have electricity. Therefore, they do not get news through the channels Americans use, and after some 25 years of war and occupation, they are slow to trust government or media. Communications here is very much person-to-person.
Q. Do you enjoy what you do? Why?
A. Immensely! I have always felt very lucky to not only love what I do but also believe in it. Communications is not only vital to making everything work, but it can also be used to boost morale.
Q. Is the US winning the communications battle abroad?
A. I believe that we are holding our own. Much of the success in communications is about relationships and resources, and that means continued investment in people and the resources they need to do the work. I believe that we could use more help from creative outside resources. One of the strengths of my civilian PR agency is its use of brainstorming in communications planning, and the building of message platforms as the foundation for campaigns. This is something I have yet to successfully institute here in our information operations. It is difficult to get people together for even an hour of brainstorming and message development. As you know, solid messages supported by proof points form the rudder that guides the communications program. Without it, and with so many people and agencies involved in the communications process, it often becomes very difficult to steer the ship. As with any large organization, change comes slowly ? the good thing is that new generations of leaders continue to embrace change.
Operations here in Afghanistan are focused on information and perceptions; everyday we fight the misinformation campaign of the Taliban and other terrorists groups. Rather than fighting with bullets and bombs, we fight using the truth and positive stories. We have to be fast, accurate, and creative because the Taliban spokesmen are quick with lies and nimble with the means to spread them. Unfortunately, the media are often apt to run with the information rather than verifying the facts. Our job revolves around establishing trust, digging for answers, and getting the truth out quickly and accurately. I?ve pushed traditional Army Public Affairs a bit further with the guidance and encouragement of my commander, LTG David Barno. In my humble opinion he represents a new breed of leadership that understands the importance of information and communications in modern warfare. In his job he must balance military, political and humanitarian operations, and communications is woven throughout each of those individually as well as collectively. I try to get my military journalists to go the extra mile to pitch good news stories to the media and to make covering them easier; to look for new, fresh story angles for operations here in Afghanistan; and to produce stories for media outlets in the United States when the media can?t get over here.