The US military has launched - and will expand next fall - a first-ever permanent rapid-response public affairs team comprising members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The Suffolk, VA-based group, Joint Public Affairs Support Element (JPASE), under the US Joint Forces Command, represents what military leaders in charge say is a huge departure from traditional military practices wherein public affairs officers from different services were thrown together on an ad hoc basis. Currently the group, comprising 27 staffers, but will expand to 48 people in September, according to Tony Billings, the JPASE executive officer.
The teams have already deployed on a trial basis for the Pakistan earthquake and southern US hurricane relief operations by the military last year.
In the past, according to Rear Admiral Frank Thorp, deputy assistant secretary of defense for joint communications, PA officers were drawn from throughout the military at the last minute, and, once in the field, were too immersed in creating standard operating procedures and learning about the region to respond to a local media and public that expects instant information delivered via the Internet and cable news channels. By contrast, he noted, the new JPASE teams are organized by geographical region into smaller cadres.
"In the old days, when something like [the earthquake in Pakistan] happened, we would have had to start fresh and literally start making phone calls and ask public affairs people to get to Pakistan," said RADM Thorp, who served as chief of media relations in Qatar during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "We'd get public affairs people showing up together for the first time without any awareness, any training, of the environment they are supposed to know. You might have sent someone from California to Pakistan who knew nothing about the region, or about Central Command, or how to provide all the releasable facts."
Thorp said the teams will not be used in Afghanistan or Iraq, since, he said, those operations, having been in place for some time, and have a functioning cadre of public affairs officers.