Armed and ready: Career Guide 2011

Military training is not often associated with comms, but as Michelle Lodge discovers, the PR industry has DINFOS to thank for training some of its best talent.

Roland Rand, SVP of communications at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, is a big-picture thinker, thanks to a little-known school with an impressive alumni list.

“When I went back to work after DINFOS, I was no longer worried about the task at hand,” says Rand, a retired Air Force brigadier general. “I learned big-picture thinking and gained a new awareness and understanding of my work.”

DINFOS is the Defense Information School, an institution that teaches college-level courses to US military personnel from all branches of the armed services, federal employees, and, since 1996, foreign military personnel in PR, print, online, and broadcast journalism, social media, and graphic arts.

Rand's experience at DINFOS was short, but sweet: He took a one-week course in PR there. It led not only to a reordering of his thinking, but also his first civilian job after he left the military. George Jamison, another DINFOS alum, recommended Rand for a job at defense contractor Pratt & Whitney. Jamison was then at United Technologies, of which Pratt & Whitney is a business, and is now the corporate communications practice leader at executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

DINFOS had its beginnings in 1946, when the Army Information School started in Carlisle Barracks, PA. At the time, PR was relatively new, radio was at its peak, and television was still a curiosity. The idea for training military personnel in PR, journalism, and related skills grew out of an awareness by leaders that they wanted their own trained personnel to report on military operations through words and images, including ground and aerial photography, mosaics, and mapping.

Even before then, though, soldiers got training in nonmilitary skills. In 1943, for example, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps sent its first group of women to a military-run photography school in Colorado to become lab technicians.

From the beginning
In 1964, DINFOS was established as a journalism and public affairs school. The school operating today represents the merging of photography, graphics, maintenance, and communication schools from three separate locations (one of which was DINFOS in Indianapolis) and moving in 1995 to Fort Meade, an Army base close to Washington, DC, in Maryland.

The school offers 32 different courses, some of which are online, running from five to 124 days in length. The public affairs qualification course, for instance, is 46 training days long and has eight areas within it. They are: theory and doctrine; community relations; internal information; multimedia; media relations; communication skills; public affairs operations; and the operational support exercise.

Although the training is distinctly nonmilitary and the skills can be transferred to the corporate world, one point is clear: “We make sure the students remember they are soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines first, then communicators,” says US Navy Lt. David Luckett, an instructor at DINFOS.

Since 1964, DINFOS has trained more than 26,000 students for duty throughout the world. In 2006, it trained 3,150 individuals. This year and next, the figures will rise to 3,500 and 3,600, respectively. Luckett says the school is planning to expand slowly over the next few years.

Women have also been a “critical” part of DINFOS, adds Luckett, and many have been enrolled in the school over the years.

One of those women is Erin Dick, now a communications director for Pratt & Whitney in the Rocketdyne division. Dick is an Air Force major who is a reservist now. She notes that the ratio of women to men in 1997, when she attended, was roughly 60 to 40.

She says the lessons and skills she learned at DINFOS come into play daily, both as a corporate employee and as a reservist.

“One of the best things for me as a brand new officer was that it's one of the few programs that's joint [meaning it includes all branches of the military],” she explains. Having that exposure to all branches, as well as to international students attending, Dick adds, gave her a broad view of the military and the world.

Currently, DINFOS has 350 staff members, half of whom are civilian federal workers, as well as other civilians working in the field. Luckett says it's important to hire civilian professionals “to stay current with the industry.”

Military instructors are assigned to teaching at the school for a set amount of time, then return to their regular posts to work as information officers or military journalists, broadcasters, graphic designers, and photographers, often under challenging, if not life-threatening, circumstances.

The same routine applies to the students in that they return to their regular posts. At times, they are put “in harm's way,” during which they must demonstrate leadership skills and the maturity to report to senior personnel and deal with life-threatening situations and fast-moving scenarios.

Better for the experience
Across the board, DINFOS graduates believe having attended the school gives them an edge once they are working in the civilian world. Handling what are often fast-changing, consequential circumstances trains them to take the broad view and learn to lead and be decisive.

One staunch supporter of the program is DINFOS grad Paul Gennaro [left]. Retired from the Navy, he is now SVP, corporate communications, and CCO at AECOM Technology. After leaving the military, Gennaro first worked at heavy-duty truck maker Mack Trucks, where, at age 26, he led Total Quality Management Communications for a global workforce of 5,300-plus employees. He has also been in communications posts at Johns Manville, Dell, American Express, Ingersoll Rand, and PSE&G.

Gennaro, now 42, gives DINFOS and the Navy credit for where he is today in the corporate world. “There's no way I would have been a CCO at 36,” he notes, “had I not been in the US Navy and gone to DINFOS.”

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