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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

Enabling Media Coverage of Internally Displaced
Persons/Refugee Operations

MAJ Corey Schultz, U.S. Army

Getting Ahead of the Story

Question: What do the following two stories have in common?

  • 1. Fifty-four Navy Seabees die during a "hurricane party" in a Gulf-side apartment building destroyed by Katrina.
  • 2. A second hijacked jet is two minutes inbound, intent upon attacking the burning Pentagon after American Airlines 77 crashed into it.

Answer: They were both untrue rumors that flashed out of control in the initial aftermath of a crisis.

In both of these cases, an aggressive and proactive approach to media relations was needed to quickly get the true story out to the public. Proactive public affairs officers (PAOs) in military units can provide rumor control and serve other purposes. Media relations can bring value to internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugee operations by bringing the issue to the world's attention. The Department of Defense (DOD) should ensure that a PAO is assigned to brigade-size units to manage media, combat misinformation, and inform interested publics.

PAOs serve as a media liaison, providing access to media outlets reporting on military events. To cite a few recent examples, PAOs brought the plight of coastal Mississippi to the Nation's living rooms. Public affairs helped the Pakistani people understand the role of the U.S. military in earthquake relief, providing transportation of relief supplies and medical care. According to a survey, positive popular public opinion of the United States in Pakistan doubled during this period.

The DOD has a legal and ethical responsibility to inform the American people on how it uses tax money, since the American populace is the ultimate bill payer for all DOD activities. As stated on the website of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, "It is Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy" (at this link). The existence of proactive military PAOs is central to the nation's concept as a representative democracy.

When applied to military operations involving IDPs or refugees, public affairs can be a force multiplier, primarily by engaging national and international media, but also by working with local media and by producing print and broadcast stories.

Photo showing Private First Class Kendra Hinds, a U.S. Army Reserve medic, helped deliver a child for a Ugandan woman.

Figure 5-1. Private First Class Kendra Hinds, a U.S. Army Reserve medic, helped deliver a child for a Ugandan woman. Medical care of vulnerable populations such as women, children, and single heads of households is critical to IDP or refugee operations. (Photo credit: U.S. Army Reserve)

Engaging External Media

In order to get the DOD message into the homes of the public, PAOs will need to actively engage with local and international media outlets. Civilian media outlets have nationwide and global reach. As an example, CNN has 40 news bureaus worldwide, employing over 4,000 personnel devoted to providing 24-hour-per-day coverage of events, seven days a week ( The size of news organizations like CNN, Fox, and the British Broadcasting Corporation provides coverage and market saturation that is incomparably more effective than what military journalists can accomplish.

Second, engaging civilian media provides "third party credibility." Publics believe what the news says about an organization much more readily than what an organization says about itself. This may be for the obvious reason that third-party reporters have no vested interest in maintaining the reputation of the organization and are thus more likely to provide a viewpoint not biased in favor of the organization.

Civilian news media have an unparalleled capacity to disseminate information quickly to large audiences. In a crisis situation, they are usually receptive to publishing or transmitting public safety information. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, media outlets in Mississippi contacted the military not just for updates on operations but also to disseminate information on food and water distribution points, medical care, and off-limits areas. Dislocated civilians will try to find out any information pertaining to their situation and will monitor any media outlets to which they have access. Military public affairs should work with any available media to provide public safety information to local populations.

Finally, media relations can provide an indirect benefit to IDP or refugee operations by keeping the issue alive, relevant, and in the mind of the public. The majority of the work involving IDPs or refugees is conducted and financed not by the military but by the United Nations and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs are particularly dependent upon private donations for their existence. Complex humanitarian emergencies that generate large amounts of IDPs or refugees take months, if not years, to resolve. However, public interest does not have that long an attention span, and the initial wave of donations quickly dwindles. Continued media attention can have the second-order effect of continued interest and donations to NGOs and the third-order effect of enabling NGOs to resolve the IDP or refugee issue more quickly and effectively.

Providing the Context

In addition to their primary role of media relations, public affairs enlisted journalists can produce their own broadcast and print news. In the Internet era, every command has a website, and enlisted journalists provide a valuable capability for the command to tell its own story. Civilian media are often unfamiliar with the complex organization and culture of military units, whereas public affairs journalists can provide context to operations.

Public affairs journalists also have access to members of the command. Ideally, they have a relationship of trust with key personnel who can explain and provide context as to why operations are important to the host nation, DOD, and the U.S. government. Public affairs journalists are with the operation for the duration and can provide the public with long-term coverage. This contrasts with civilian media journalists, who may be with a particular unit or operation for a short period of time. This capability can also be used to provide public information to the host nation population, though this is primarily the responsibility of military information support operations and must be coordinated with them.

Getting the Story Out

Print stories and still photographs can be uploaded to the Internet, providing factual and timely information on the operation to global audiences with Internet connections. DOD public affairs currently has an extremely powerful contracted asset called Defense Visual Information System (DVIDS). Public affairs personnel have the capability to produce broadcast quality news video and transmit it via satellite to a hub in Atlanta, where it is uploaded to a website (

It is then made available by download to any member of the public or any news organization. For copyright purposes, all DOD-produced stories, photos, and video are in the public domain and may be used and reproduced by any member of the public, including and especially media organizations. They just may not be used to offer a good or service for sale.

Photo showing Department of the Army civilian PAOs set up a satellite communications device at the airfield in Entebbe, Uganda

Figure 5-2. Department of the Army civilian PAOs set up a satellite communications device at the airfield in Entebbe, Uganda. These highly trained personnel brought technical expertise and understanding of media relations to the mission, using the satellite to enable civilian media outlets as far away as Chicago and Atlanta to interview U.S. personnel on their humanitarian assistance operations and their importance. (Photo credit: U.S. Army Reserve)

DOD-produced visual and written projects have several benefits. They inform the public of military stories of interest funded by public monies. They also can be used by civilian media, allowing these organizations to report on activities without sending a representative. Most news organizations do not have the regular coverage for a special mission, so the work of the public affairs journalists is very important for informing the U.S. public about the activities and operations of the military and the DOD. Lastly, public affairs journalists provide information and context to civilian journalists who are sent to the site but do not have extensive information about the situation or the military.

How to Make the Best Use of PAOs

Though a powerful force multiplier, public affairs is sometimes misunderstood and misemployed by commanders. Public affairs is best employed providing information and products to the external public, whereas creating information products for military personnel and their families is of secondary importance. The reason is two-fold: internal products do not have third-party credibility to the intended audience and are often not believed, and command information is primarily the responsibility of the chain of command.

Leaders at all levels are responsible for transmitting the commander's vision and intent to their subordinates and should not rely on public affairs to transmit this information in a newsletter that never leaves the command. The time and energy it takes to create command information products are better spent creating products for an external website that informs both internal and external audiences about the unit's mission, vision, personnel, and operations. Additionally, command newsletters are relics of the pre-Internet era, when DOD personnel did not have access to the Internet or cell phones. In today's information environment, most military personnel and families have access to the Internet in all but extreme conditions and can research required but routine information - for example, how to use TRICARE, information on a new post or command, biographies of leadership, etc.- without relying on a command information product.

Keys to Success in Proactive Public Affairs

The following checklist (Figure 5-3) is based on personal experience and will provide commanders and planners with a list of items to think about when planning for the use of PAOs during operations.

Graphic showing Proactive Public Affairs checklist

Graphic showing Proactive Public Affairs checklist

Figure 5-3


Public affairs is a media capability that can be misunderstood and poorly utilized. But when commanders plan, prepare, execute, and assess public affairs assets, they can be a great force multiplier for IDP/refugee operations. Public affairs can bring national and international attention to the crisis, which generates donations to the intergovernmental organization and the NGO community. Public affairs inform the American people about the use of their tax money, which is an important function for a free society. Public affairs can also engage with host nation media, providing information on public safety, such as location of camps, distribution points, and medical care. All of these functions can help U.S. forces, interagency, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development partners solve complex humanitarian emergencies more effectively. Ultimately, any military operation in a crisis situation - including those that create IDPs or refugees - can benefit from the proactive and continuing work of public affairs.


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