A lesson in public affairs

Military PAOs are trained, not born.

Military PAOs are trained, not born.

Maj. Martha Brooks-Scott is a military public affairs officer because she has a passion for the truth, but she joined the Army to make a liar out of her dad. "My father was a command sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank, and he bet me I couldn't handle the military, that it would be too strenuous for me. He knows the thought of dirt under my fingernails irks me," she laughs. "I had to make a liar out of him." So when she was a junior in college, Brooks-Scott joined ROTC with the sole objective of surviving the training and proving her dad wrong. Just a few years later, she found herself overseas, commissioned as an air defense officer in the middle of the Gulf War. Now a media relations specialist with the Operations, Intelligence, and Logistics (OIL) Team at the Pentagon, Brooks-Scott is typical of most military public affairs officers, or PAOs as they call themselves (service members would rather surrender than use the full name of something that can be made into an acronym). She didn't enter the military with the dream of getting into the PR field. Indeed, she didn't even realize it was something she could do for the Army. But once she chose it as her specialty, the Department of Defense (DoD) took care of the rest. "I read up on public affairs and saw it as a job that could help you transition easily out into the work force. It seemed like a very marketable skill," she recalls. "So I said to myself, 'I can do this.' But I didn't realize what public affairs really entailed until I went through DINFOS [Defense Information School]." Waking up to the news It's not yet 8 on an icy January morning, and Maj. Michelle Martin-Hing is offering a box of colorful Koosh balls (and one Gumby doll) to a classroom of sleepy, uniformed students. "Anyone need help waking up?" No one responds, so she begins. "What was in the news this morning?" she asks. The answers come reluctantly: the Scott Peterson trial; a mountain lion attacked a woman in Orange County, CA; the National Zoo is in trouble for mishandling its animals. All true, but not what she's looking for. "What's going on in Iraq?" she presses. A hesitant silence ensues, broken by a direct hit: "Somebody shot down a Blackhawk," answers a young woman. The answer is not quite right, but it's precisely what the professor was looking for. "Well, no - that was the initial report. Technical reports reveal that it had not been shot at. But that's a good lesson. Initial reports - they're sometimes wrong. People are in a rush to get the information out, and sometimes you don't have all the facts," she warns. Her point? "That's what people remember: the first thing they hear." Barring the bitter cold outside, this is a morning like any other at DINFOS in Fort Meade, MD. Every military PAO, photographer, journalist, and graphic designer comes here to learn their craft. Some arrive without a day of experience in their chosen practice area; others have been practicing for years. All will return to their posts fully trained and ready for action in about a month. This particular class is in its third day of the Public Affairs Officer Qualification Course (PAOQC), a 43-day curriculum teaching "basic public affairs theory, doctrine, and skills for a beginning public affairs officer." It might not seem like much - until you realize it's 43 days more training than many sector PR execs will have on the job. DINFOS students arrive here from around the world and live on the base for the span of the course. Each branch of the military - the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines - requires a different amount of time served before enrollment, but all require at least a few years. Today they are getting three hours of instruction on the role and responsibilities of a PAO from Martin-Hing, the same woman who taught Brooks-Scott. For anyone unfamiliar with the modern military and its approach to communications, the class discussion might come as a shock. The students, mostly all under 30, grill Martin-Hing with a curiosity bordering on irreverence. They want to know how the story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's rescue got so exaggerated. One soldier complains that President Bush, in a recent press conference, confirmed charges about a controversial Halliburton deal that his office had been "denying and denying."("He hurt our credibility," says the soldier, sounding more insulted then angry.) Infamous scandals at Tailhook and Aberdeen are debated openly. And everyone is a little confused about the Army's recent rollout of its individualistic slogan, "An Army of One." Martin-Hing, whose husband is also an Army PAO, explains what lessons can be learned from each gaffe. Regarding the "An Army of One" slogan, she says, "[Army PAOs] ignored their internal audience and treated it strictly as a marketing campaign. It backfired because the [soldiers who] had been brought in under "Be All You Can Be" just flat-out revolted." This class comprises students from every service, plus a few civilians. Each branch presents its own issues. For example, the Air Force has problems with the new journalist embed program launched during the Iraq war. After all, you can't embed a reporter in an F-16, so the Air Force got very little media attention last year. Students from the Army said they are troubled by a trend among senior officials to lump public affairs in with the deceptive art of Psychological Operations (Psy Ops). And the Marines, it would seem, are envied as the only service that fosters a truly image-conscious environment. Martin-Hing covers a remarkable amount of material in three hours, including what it means to be "loyal" in the military (not faithful to a particular commander, but to the ideals of the service) and the often overlapping, always confusing laws that determine what PAOs can and cannot do with taxpayer dollars (they can inform the public, but cannot seek to influence Congress). Martin-Hing wraps up the class with a refrain that's become familiar over the past three hours: "Go ugly early," she advises. It's a mantra Brooks-Scott remembers well. "We learn that the best thing to do as a PAO is to advise your primary to get the word out early, good or bad," she says. "When you leave time for people to speculate, they go in either direction, so if you're going to come out with bad news, do it early." She puts this into use daily, poring through the morning's papers for news her superiors need to hear, sifting through media requests, determining who gets to interview what official, and advising her commander when it's best to stay out of the news all together. It's not that much different than what her counterparts at the likes of IBM or Burson-Marsteller are doing. But she might be forgiven for sensing that the stakes she plays with are a bit higher. The recently married major is leaving soon for a three-year tour in Japan. Upon her return, she'll take the education she's had at DINFOS and the Pentagon and land a PR job in the private-sector - or as she puts it "the civilian force" - where she will likely show her coworkers what it really means to be an army of one. ----- Conversation with the commandant Most colleges have a president; DINFOS has a commandant. Col. Hiram Bell Jr. took charge in 2000. Last month he sat down for a brief conversation with PRWeek. PRWeek: How was DINFOS established? Bell: In 1992, a decision was made to consolidate three separate schools, bringing together all public-affairs and visual-information instruction. The building has been fully occupied since 1998, and we now support about 3,000 residents each year. PRWeek: Does the culture of transparency taught here conflict with military culture in general? Bell: We teach the principles and practices here, and then they take that tool kit and use it in the real world, which is not a tidy place with schoolbook solutions. But today's graduates will find commanders much more receptive to transparency than I did. PRWeek: How is the embed program changing the role of the PAO? Bell: Any PAO 10 years ago would have told you that they have better things to do than baby-sit a reporter. The expectation of senior officers now is that, because PAOs no longer must do that, they will instead be strategic counselors and tactical executors. But the cautionary tale is that embedding is not policy - it's decided campaign by campaign. PRWeek: Will media accept less access? Bell: Expectations have been raised on both sides. The complaint I hear from former students in Iraq is that reporters aren't embedding enough. They go out, get a quick story, and return to the hotel. People must know that if we can do more embedding, we will. PRWeek: Some PAOs complain of pressure to aid Psy Ops. Bell: PAOs have to be cognizant of Psy Ops, and sometimes they need to support it, but they have to know where the firewall is. There are things Psy Ops does we should never be a part of. Our audiences look for disparities in everything we say, and they know how to leverage those differences against us. PRWeek: How do your students fare in the private sector? Bell: Some have become VPs of communications for big-name corporations or established successful private practices, but they have to have had a good track record as a military PAO.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in