CAREER DEVELOPMENT: ‘This is the best thing I've ever done'

Looking for a hobby? Find yourself bored on weekends? Join the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and you could be briefing journalists in battle zones around the world. Suzy Bashford reports.

The military forces are rarely out of the headlines but most people are unaware how much the services rely on volunteers to manage media relations.

This is particularly true in the current climate, when media outlets often cannot send journalists out to war-torn countries due to insurance reasons.

They are also reluctant to embed reporters on a long-term basis because of the vast expense and time commitment this requires, not to mention the danger for the reporter.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has a dedicated squadron of volunteers (or auxiliaries) whose role is to provide media operations support for RAF and NATO forces.

In peacetime, this means training RAF officers on dealing with the media, creating editorial content and providing PR support at events. During war, it can mean advising senior officers on media strategy, leading a mobile news team or staffing a press information centre.

Media operations officers who join RAF 7644 Squadron can be called on at any time. Most of the members are either PROs or journalists, from all over the UK, who have gone through a rigorous training programme at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire.

The team includes a press officer for the Royal Horticultural Society, a manager from the Olympics Delivery Authority, a PRO for insurance firm Britannia, an editor working for a local council and a radio station PRO.

But before they embark on this programme, recruits have to successfully complete a four-day assessment at RAF Cranwell, where they sit the same tests as those applying to join the regular RAF. At this stage, if recruited, they are appointed as an officer cadet, until they complete the necessary training.

This consists of some study at home, training weekends and a 15-day basic recruits course, covering military skills and PR-specific training.

The highlight for most is deployment. And, when deployed, the RAF ensures they are paid while away and that their civilian role is protected (see box, above).

PRWeek went behind the scenes of 7644 Squadron and talked to three recruits about training, deployment and taking your gun into the shower.

FACT BOX: The Auxiliary RAF
The squadron is made up of specialists from newspaper, magazine, TV, radio and online backgrounds.

The minimum commitment is 27 days a year, for which members receive pay and training benefits.

A high level of fitness is a prerequisite and fitness is monitored during training and every six months after this.

During normal training pay is at the same basic daily rate as airmen and officers of the equivalent rank in the regular RAF. This ranges from a daily rate of £30.96 for an airman to £108 as a squadron leader. If squadron members are compulsorily mobilised, they receive the equivalent level of their civilian pay.

In addition to basic pay, squadron auxiliaries receive an annual bounty, a tax-free lump sum paid out on completion of the minimum training requirement (including passing basic military tests).

The amount of the bounty normally starts at £382 in the first year, rising to £1,506 after five years of service. New members need to notify their employer, and ensure the employer is aware of the rights and obligations of an RAF auxiliary.

If you are interested in finding out more, email your CV and a covering letter to joinus @7644sqn.org.uk.

For further information, see www.rafreserves.com.

The new recruit
Lesley Woods, recruiting officer

Woods' father was in the RAF and she always wanted to follow in his footsteps. But when she applied at the age of 19, she was advised to ‘go away and get some life experience'.

Lesley Woods‘At the time I was devastated and it wasn't until I had spent some years working in media that I thought about combining the best of both worlds,' she says. For her, working in the RAF is the ‘ultimate PR job' and gives her the opportunity to go to war-torn countries and ‘make a difference'.

She has been a reservist for 16 months and is still undergoing training. But already she believes her employer, GCAP Media, where she is a PR project manager for Radio Broadland, is reaping the benefits.

In particular, the RAF management course is giving her valuable people skills and strategies and building her confidence to better handle a team. She is also learning more about how to be a team player as, when on exercise, she is thrown together with other officers who she has never met before and has to eat, sleep and work with them 24/7.

‘If one of you doesn't succeed, then you all have to run up a hill as punishment, so it's real team work,' she says. As well as this, she is honing her multimedia skills, carrying out written, audio and broadcast PR drills, with the help and advice of her colleagues, a range of PROs and journalists.

The 15-day basic training course is demanding, with long hours and various practical and theoretical exams. ‘You've got to roll your sleeves up and get muddy. We do a dirty job and we have to be out there with the troops,' she says. ‘You need to be dedicated and really want to do this. If you do, you'll get a real sense of achievement.'

The ‘raring to go' officer
Tom Calver, training officer

Tom Calver joined the reservists in 2006. Already his colleagues in his day job at Blackburn with Darwen Council, where he is web editor in the comms and marketing department, have remarked on the fact he is more confident.

Tom Calver‘What I've learned has definitely helped me,' he says. ‘The military model of planning is very good and is designed to be used quickly. If I need a quick PR plan, I'll use that in preference to other PR models.'

Although he has not been deployed yet, Calver cites his highlight so far as a two-and-a-half week exercise in the Falklands. For this, Calver and his fellow media operations officers were providing a ‘media offensive' for the military to respond to, as if in a real-life situation.

‘We were there to test their media people, just as much as any other element. We wrote fictional news pieces based on different scenarios, which gave me experience of writing in the style of lots of publications,' he says.

Also, while he was there Calver was responsible for obtaining some aerial footage of the various battle sites, to be provided to broadcasters. He was given a film crew to lead and an RAF pilot was at his disposal to fly the helicopter wherever he commanded.

‘It was a fantastic experience, flying over the rolling hills and meeting some great people. That's the kind of thing you dream about in a job,' he says.

Nevertheless, he advises others signing up that the demands of being a reservist should not be underestimated. As well as being committed in terms of giving up spare time, he stresses that you need to devote time to staying fit. ‘Fitness is taken more and more seriously. I run a lot and it requires quite an investment of time,' he says.

Nevertheless, Calver concludes that it has definitely been worth it. ‘Being an RAF officer is very special,' he says. ‘When you are appointed as a Royal Auxiliary Air Force officer, that's a moment you'll be proud of for the rest of your life.'

The senior officer
Dylan Eklund, deputy commanding officer

Dylan Eklund joined the squadron in 2000, and has already been deployed abroad twice. His first trip was to the Gulf in 2003 for three months and the second was to Afghanistan in 2006 for two weeks.

Dylan EklundUnlike the vast majority of his media operations officer colleagues, he does not have a media background. In fact, he is a solicitor but does have some experience as a freelance journalist, writing for aviation publications in his spare time.

‘Being a solicitor and doing media operations is very similar: you work under pressure and you have to produce very accurate document-ation,' he says.

Although the RAF trains media operations officers as best it can before they are deployed, there is a large element of learning on the job when in a foreign country. The biggest adjustment for Eklund was remembering to take his weapon everywhere, including the shower and in bed.

‘As a reservist, in the first few days you're terrified about losing it or leaving it behind,' he says. When he was called to the Gulf in 2003, he felt a mixture of excitement, trepidation and sadness at leaving his wife and two kids.

And, while he stresses that being a reservist is not easy if you have family commitments, ‘it is still one of the best things I've ever done'.

Eklund was based in the press information centre, dealing with media enquiries from journalists on site and on the phone, and issuing press releases as quickly as possible following an incident.

The other main part of his job was advising commanders about media exposure. ‘You find that you have a lot of slow days, then suddenly it all kicks off,' he says. He adds that the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq is a very different media challenge because journalists are now targets.

‘There's a greater reliance on us to provide information, either by taking them with us and embedding them, or obtaining the information ourselves and giving it
to them in an unedited form.'

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