Producing Change in Army Public Affairs: Ideas for Refocusing Operations
by LTC James E. Hutton, Public Affairs Officer (PAO), III Corps and Fort Hood
Analyst’s Note: In this article, the author suggests a refocusing of Army public affairs (PA). The ideas expressed in this article represent only the views of the author and are not to be construed as representing either current or emerging doctrine or policy. The purpose for publication here is to provoke thought, engender discussion, and explore possibilities for improving methods for practicing PA. View any tactics, techniques, or procedures presented in this article as points of discussion and not as approved replacements for current operational methods.
The article below was written in 2001, prior to the events of 9/11. But more importantly, it was written before the numerous operations that have come since.
Although the need to adapt to the exponentially expanding marketplace of ideas and media outlets was clear before 9/11, such adaptation has proven critical in the last five years. Our Soldiers, the American public, the publics of our allies, and publics of our enemies have changed the way they receive and deliver information. Gone are the days when a local news release stays local. A word uttered at Fort Sill, Iraq, or Afghanistan can rocket across the planet instantly. On the other hand, the overwhelming flow of available information makes getting heard andunderstood a daunting task.
When I wrote “Producing Change in Army Public Affairs: Ideas for Refocusing Operations” for the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) in 2001, telling the Army story often meant pushing stories to reporters. Today, media encounters are nearly constant, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, we must go beyond quantity of contacts as a measure of effectiveness; maintaining pressure on reporters to cover operations comprehensively is the key to the success of PA operations in 2006. One factor that skews coverage in Iraq is that reporters are not as able to move about as they may wish. Consequently, many organizations are satisfied to collect daily casualty statistics and other items that are easily packaged. In fact, some organizations rely heavily on “stringers,” that is non-professional local nationals who are sent to the streets to capture quotes, photos, and video, which are then brought to news bureaus. The actual reporters then use the material. Obviously, the materials gained through this method are of questionable validity; this is something news organizations are not eager to talk about publicly.
One constant remains: telling the truth is the only acceptable mode of conduct for PAOs. Although we need to be innovative in getting information out, we cannot dilute the product by allowing the use of false or misleading items.
One way to get information out is the continued use of “super-reporting,” as described below. In addition to the many possibilities listed, we need to include the use of Web logsotherwise known simply as “blogs.” “Bloggers” are becoming more prominent; some of them are our very own Soldiers. Instead of cowering from the possible ill effects of blogging (such as operations security violations), it is important that we embrace this new use of technology to tell our story.
Commanders at all levels are making tremendous strides in working with reporters for stories. Operation Iraqi Freedom I and subsequent rotations have all included embedded reporters. From the several hundred reporters that followed troop units as they moved from Kuwait into Iraq, to the several dozen that remain throughout the country today, long- and short-term embedding has provided some of the best, most comprehensive reporting of the war. Commanders now fully understand that one substantial duty of command is to meet the press.
The Army News Service’s growth has been dramatic. The Army homepage and its multiple functions in support of viewers make it the most impressive Web page in the U.S. government’s inventory. As installation and forward-based Web pages continue to follow suit, we can expect more strides in functionality.
Finally, the most impressive development from the combat theater is the use of the Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System. The system, first used from Iraq by the 1st Cavalry Division in 2004, allows units from virtually anywhere in the battlespace to link with a satellite for live and taped interviews with any commercial media outlet worldwide. The system provides for a direct news feed, for example, to local television affiliates in a way that simply was not possible with anyprior technology.
It is important that PA practitioners make use of all means at their disposal to tell the Army story. It is clear that if left to chance, the story that is told will not offer a true and full depiction of what is occurring on the ground.
Army PA is facing a stern challenge. As the Army enters a new century, PA must adapt to major advancements in technology, growing expectations for development of information, and a heightened need to communicate ideas. Army PA must adopt a public relations model to maximize the potential strengths of current force structures in both installation offices and operational PA units, using new practices that effectively present the Army message and are consistent with Army values. This effort will require a focus on public relations techniques and a reduction of journalistic practices.
This article provides a set of ideas aimed at altering the approach of PA practitioners and commanders in PA operations. The new approach will require a use of PA personnel that does not necessarily represent current doctrine and practice. It does not, however, contradict legally mandated edicts for honesty, timeliness, and accuracy.
Despite years of downsizing, the Army remains a large and enduring institution. However, although we would like to believe that the Army is an organization whose relevance is self-evident, such is not the case. What remains for commanders and PA practitioners is the need to remain connected to the American people in a highly visible and ongoing way. A thorough refocusing of PA efforts and skills will ensure such a connection is achieved.
Why Does the Force Need to Change?
Many members of the media, a growing segment of Congress, and a large majority of the American public have never served in the military. Many states have no military installations. In short, the lives of our military members and the American public are intersecting less and less.
It is incumbent on our military leaders to engender understanding of, and support for, the actions we take in preparing and executing our national military strategy.
Moreover, Americans, through the media, are far more inclined to listen to senior officers than junior Soldiers on large, substantive issues such as readiness, efficacy of operations, and future development. Both types of interviews, with both junior Soldiers and senior officers, are necessary and are necessary often. Senior leaders must step out of the shadows, take the prudent risks, and talk to the American people.
Why Must Army PA Change?
PA, like any operation, is a commander’s program. Although PAOs execute PA missions, without direct commander involvement, only mediocre results are possible. Commanders must establish clear PA objectives. PAOs, adopting some of the ideas below, can develop the commanders’ plans and maximize use of all means available to effect results.
The U.S. armed forces are populated by the finest military professionals in the world. Soldiers, at all levels, must understand that they are part of the team that will achieve PA results. A concerted effort to tell the military story is necessary as an ongoing way of military life. The world of instant media and the reality that the public quickly shifts its attention to other events demands great effort to maintain a public relations edge.
A World of Ideas
Commercial organizations compete in a world of ideas through advertising and public relations. In this vast marketplace lies numerous media outlets and venues: radio, television, every form of print publication, the Internet, music, billboards, handbills, and phone banks. Of course, there is a commensurate ongoing competition among the various media outlets to capture information and deliver it to a widely diverse set of audiences.
Although the Army and other military organizations are not in direct competition with national commercial institutions for market share, commanders and PAOs can harness the competition between the information publishers and brokers to forward the Army’s ideas and positions. The media intensely seek out new information to sell their product. Innovative commanders and PAOs can leverage regularly scheduled and special events for greater media impact by employing a deliberate program of continuous interaction with key members of the media and other influential community leaders.
Exploiting the Use of Personalities
Perhaps the most controversial of changes in an Army culture that stresses team accomplishment is exploiting the abilities of certain individuals by repeatedly putting them in the media spotlight. Senior leaders with charisma and media savvy can become media personalities and, therefore, respected spokesmen for the Army.
While this ostensibly runs counter to the institutional desire to avoid a cult of personality, it can provide benefits to the organization for many years. GEN Colin L. Powell, until becoming Secretary of State, was a popular circuit speaker. He related his military experiences to rapt audiences, despite having retired in 1993. GEN Powell may indeed be a rarity; however, many bold personalities are within our ranks.
The Army must make a concerted effort to identify such personalities and use their media talents for organizational advantage. Although this individual focus undoubtedly will cause some discomfort, the advantages are clear:
Effective future Army PA will blend the current triad of community relations (COMREL), internal information (also known as command information), and media relations into a single-minded effort, based on a commander’s stated intent for PA. This intent, created with the assistance of the PAO, is to describe the commander’s goals for providing information to key public groups and the general public, to meet the recurring information needs of key public groups, and to conform to higher-level PA guidance.
Restructuring PA offices with the new focus on conducting public relations will require little, if any, changes in numbers of personnel. Indeed, current PA manning for COMREL, command information, and media relations is sufficient to create a new public relations team.
PA offices cannot and should not compete with commercial newspapers. Small-town newspapers, with little or no responsibilities for COMREL or media relations, publish newspapers with staffs that dwarf most PA offices. Installation newspapers usually have one editor and a small number of reporters. The reporters and, to some degree, the editors may have only a few years of experience. Reporters on commercial newspaper staffs may have many years of experience and much greater educational backgrounds than Soldier-journalists. Additionally, commercial newspapers may employ sectional editors (i.e., sports, news, community).
It is apparent that despite the best efforts of installation staffs to prepare newspapers, their current focus on “news” items, irrespective of any commander’s intent for PA, cannot yield the quantity or depth of a commercial newspaper.
More importantly, PA staff members in a public relations model are part of the team, not roving reporters looking for a scoop.
The current focus on collecting “news” should be abandoned. By employing methods that are focused on the needs of the commander and key public groups, installation and operational PA staffs can refocus post newspapers using a model that provides necessary information, supports the commander’s intent for PA, and maximizes the strengths of current PA manning policies.
Internal Notes and Publications
Post newspapers have become marginalized in importance with the emergence of computer communication for providing command information. In seconds, commanders can distribute command information to each key subordinate and quickly gain meaningful feedback. Other relatively new developments, such as the commander’s cable channel on continental United States installations, Internet bulletin boards, and public folders on intranets, further limit the usefulness of the post newspaper as a tool of command information.
However, that does not mean that post newspapers should be eliminated. Indeed, new developments in technology can assist in the new approach suggested in this article. Other than the bulletin-board type of information that appears in every newspaper, many future articles should be designed for internal and external audiences. Some articles will, of course, lend themselves to only the internal audience.
Each Army journalist must demonstrate knowledge of the commander’s intent for PA. Every article must withstand the scrutiny of the PAO in meeting the requirement to support the mission of the command. The post newspaper is not a venue for attempting to win a Pulitzer Prize for examining society’s latest problem, unless such an examination supports the needs of the commander.
Training of Army journalists will require adjustments in focus. Soldier-journalists will not approach subjects for articles in the same manner as a commercial reporter. As a member of the organization, Army journalists will work from the commander’s intent in developing information articles.
Using “grip-and-grin” photo opportunities (which include Soldiers receiving awards and ribbon-cutting ceremonies) represents a change in the mindset of today’s PA practitioners. Many commanders and command sergeants major ask for such efforts from their PAOs, often meeting at least some resistance. Indeed, past regulations suggest such events yield little in the way of newsworthiness.3 However, concerns about newsworthiness simply miss the point. Such opportunities provide the commander with a tool for achieving his information needs.
PAOs should re-examine the reasons for their reluctance. “Grip-and-grin” photos, while not always useful for newspapers, can have a positive internal or external public relations effect. Further, with the emergence of digital photography, production of photos is much easier. Sharing the photos is also quick through e-mail and posting on Web sites.
PAOs can consider creating systems that incorporate “grip-and-grins” in support of the commander’s intent for PA:
Create an electronic file that includes e-mail addresses, Web sites, fax numbers, and points of contact for local, regional, and national media outlets. This data is important in forming the structure of the database, but that is only part of the process. Such lists, while useful, require constant updating, not unlike the improvement of a defensive position.
Working the lists is essential to successful implementation of ongoing and future projects. By working the lists, the PA practitioner routinely calls or contacts the primary outlets and, just as importantly, constantly seeks out new media outlets.
Send cover letters and prepackaged material (such as video products, special edition newspapers, and visitor’s guides) to a broad range of targeted local, regional, and national media outlets. Often, periodicals with seemingly no apparent interest in military matters (city and county newsletters and newspapers, scientific journals, documentary writers and producers of various types [consult with the Chief of Army PA, Los Angeles Branch], special-interest publications, and business magazines) will see something in your packet that they can use.4 In addition, there may be daily newspapers and television affiliates outside the local installation’s normal circulation area (which may not have been considered before) that are interested in various projects.
This effort is endless. There are thousands of media sources that have a constant need for story ideas. It is important to note that many print, broadcast, and Internet reporters have limited knowledge of military matters. Coach them along and develop interest where there may have been none before. Make a strong effort toward providing opportunities for reporters to participate in events to the fullest extent allowable by law and good sense. You may think your three-day Multiple Launch Rocket System live-fire exercise is business as usual. However, it may be the first time the reporters (and the general public) sees the sky ignited by streaking rockets.
Remaining current is the hard work of the PA business. Develop plans that ensure recurring events or key Army strengths are presented forcefully and often. For example, CBS News followed the progress of a student through the Ranger Course one summer. The series of stories that resulted from that coverage demonstrated the commitment, hard work, and sense of duty required to complete the course. It was a great series; however, those stories aired more than 10 years ago. Virtually no potential recruit, ROTC student, or West Point prospect has any recollection of the reports. Key Army stories cannot be told “once and for all” through an article, radio broadcast, or television episode. (See “super-reporting,” below).
Using the example above, other logical stories could have been (or could be) coverage of the Army’s Best Ranger Competition, a documentary on Ranger missions or training, or a series of print human-interest stories. Such stories offer a poignant portrayal of the meaningful and rigorous work of the force and, more importantly, provide a solid, human-face connection between the force and the American public.
Keys to program vitality:
No Manipulation of the Public
In the bygone era of limited media outlets and few key media representatives (reporters), public relations specialists sometimes sought to manipulate the public through clever (occasionally deceptive) methods. This could explain the development of an Army PA apparatus that was to be seen as distinct from public relations.
Two factors have largely moved the public relations profession away from such practices. The first factor has been the explosion of media outlets, print and electronic, through such means as improved distribution, the Internet, and 24-hour cable television. These factors alone have made it impossible to easily manipulate views over a sustained period (of course, there are exceptions).
The second factor has been the general professionalization of the public relations community. Public relations specialists understand the sustained power of the truth. More importantly, they see themselves as professional advisors to their clients on business practices. Their advice can sometimes result in a business changing its behavior in a way that maintains its goals and may mitigate potential crises. It also can enhance the public’s perception of the company by demonstrating a responsible approach to dealing with potentially explosive issues.
Use of Conferences
Major corporations employ convention organizers to schedule conventions, conferences, and seminars. Army-related organizations, such as the Association of the United States Army and others, plan and execute similar events.
The Army and its major subordinate commands can develop highly focused, message-intensive events. The goals and purpose of such events cannot be limited to photo sessions and general presentations, although elements of both will occur. Plan the events with definite themes. Establish key media centers.
Follow the event with a media-impact analysis:
“Super-reporting” involves the constant surveillance of electronic broadcasts and printed materials and the anticipation of internal and external information needs and planning factors to maximize opportunities. PAOs must “super-report” to gain and maintain an information edge over the internal and external audiences. PAOs must understand trends and creatively find ways to take advantage of media information needs.
Electronic databases are an essential element of “super-reporting.” PAO databases must contain the following elements:
All of the items above can be maintained on an off-the-shelf spreadsheet program. At higher levels, database programs may be more desirable. Major commands must share their databases and constantly provide other PAOs with new and promising venues for telling their stories.
PAOs can gain important leading-edge information by joining civic groups, attending town council meetings, organizing and participating in COMREL events, and maintaining personal contacts in the community and the media. PAOs should develop information-collection plans and routinely scour notes for internal and external dissemination. Such a system will allow PAOs to properly target media outlets, prepare useful press releases, and schedule well-timed interviews to support commanders’ programs.
When deployed, PAOs usually have the added task of producing an internal information publication, a newsletter perhaps, but are not tasked with providing COMREL. The COMREL task is much broader in a theater of operations and is conducted as part of information operations by civil affairs personnel. PAOs also have the task of continuing to provide the home installation with internal information. In garrison or in a theater of operations, PAOs must continue to research and provide for key media opportunities.
Commanders Lead the PA Effort
Commanders greatly influence the flow of information, as well as the tenor and content of their subordinates’ media input, by being conspicuously prepared to encounter the media. The following suggestions provide the basis for commanders and command sergeants major to be more innovative when interacting with the media:
Know the Organization
All PAOs must ensure that they are “thoroughly familiar with all facets of (the) command.”6 The PAO should be able to give a full command briefing that relates a unit’s missions, capabilities, training methods, major weapons systems, equipment platforms, ongoing projects, historical summary, and command philosophy.
A PAO who does not understand the mission of the organization is not a useful member of the staff. Beyond possessing the simple “just the facts” knowledge listed above, it is essential that the PAO understands and can articulate the values of the organization. It is of little worth to a PA program if a PAO has a bundle of media contacts but is unable to deliver key values-based messages. Commanders and PAOs should work to craft solid messages that accurately reflect the organization’s goals and aspirations.
Find Populations of Knowledgeable Parties
With a thorough knowledge of the key public audiences, the organization, and the organization’s values, the commander and PAO continually seek out populations of knowledgeable parties and try to communicate with them. PAOs must ensure key public audiences understand the organization’s values and that the command understands the audiences’ thinking.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
PAOs assist commanders in developing a list of the key public audiences. As mentioned earlier, one of the PAO’s major functions is to consistently inform commanders of what these audiences are thinking. How does the public perceive the command? This feedback is gained through media analysis, COMREL event after-action reviews, and a myriad of other sources, including internal and external town hall meeting minutes and civilian town or county council minutes.
While some PAOs will insist that this service is already provided, this new approach to PA will make such efforts much more vital.
Advising the Commander
The following example is fictitious. Its purpose is to provide PAOs with an understanding the necessity of advising the commander. It illustrates how the PAO, who is not necessarily an expert on the underlying issue, can provide sound, practical information to a commander to limit or eliminate potential PA crises.
In the above example, neither the PAO nor the commander are environmental experts. However, both have applied good sense and integrity to a potentially explosive situation. Had the commander chosen to ignore the problem, the situation details could have leaked to the media, leading to a “scandal” angle in the media coverage. Had the commander chosen to start the cleanup and not informed the media, a similar scenario could have played out. By addressing the issue up front, the commander and PAO were able to set the conditions for a message that showed that the installation was conscientiously attacking the problem and dealing with it systematically. Again, this will not satisfy everyone in the public or the media. Such a state is probably not possible with any course of action. However, the key audiences and the general public will not view this issue as a “scandal.”
Ensure that feedback given to the commander provides accurate data. This is no time to hold back needed information for fear of upsetting sensibilities. Too often, commanders are told that the military is held in high esteem, and it is left at that. In fact, such general respect is easily displaced by specific negative information. Handled poorly, bad information festers and transcends an otherwise high opinion of the military.
Role of the PA Officer
As information continues to grow in importance, the role of the PAO must change to support the commander’s critical need to know what key audiences think. The PAO can no longer simply function as a funnel through which news clippings pass. The PAO must provide the commander with advice on how to mitigate or eliminate the effects of potentially damaging information, without resorting to deception. This advice should contain definitive behavioral steps to determine the best course of action. PAOs must be willing to encourage commanders to change behaviors that can lead to negative media. Such changes must always be positive and affirm the Army values system, even to the short-term detriment of the organization. The PAO will consult with key staff agencies, develop a PA plan, and proactively approach pre-crisis management.
PAOs can improve their understanding of public relations through professional memberships and advanced schooling. Consider the following to further professional expertise:
In the world of ideas, deliberate and repetitive voices are heard. To meet challenges in this world of ideas, Army PA must adapt through refocusing, using current manning levels. The Army can exploit the advantages of using media savvy senior leaders to effectively communicate the Army’s message. PAOs must learn to provide commanders with public relations products and advice, with the goal of supporting a stated intent for PA. PAOs will provide products and conduct operations that have not been part of the formal conduct of PA in the past.
Old paradigms must change. PAOs will seek out markets, just as public relations specialists do for commercial enterprises. PAOs will “super-report,” that is, beat reporters to the punch on issues affecting the command. PAOs will provide solid advice during the planning and decision cycles for commanders. Commanders will expand their focus for PA by staying prepared for inquiries and standing ready to spread their message. All of this will occur within the parameters of honesty and integrity. The public expects nothing less. Presenting the Army message is now harder only because of the endless number of potential venues. Plan well and maximize the benefits to the Army’s great Soldiers.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012