By Dave Butler and Dave Chace
In the Information Age, how your actions are interpreted are as important as the actions themselves. This applies not only to the battlefield but to the local community, the greater military enterprise and your organization. As an S3 or XO you’re too busy to worry about about the interpretation part, so having a professional in your organization dedicated to this task is to the key to maximizing effects.
Major, meet your PAO.
When Crisis Strikes. Do you want your battalion’s first and most prominent public reference to be the time one of your platoon leaders drives drunk through the front of the Post movie theater, or would it be better if that incident was balanced against a handful of positive mentions? Probably the latter. It sucks when something bad happens. Crisis management and communication is so much easier when you’ve built a relationship with the officer who will steer the narrative. Rest assured, something bad will happen to your battalion during your tour, and your brigade PAO will have to talk about it—probably before your official CCIR has even hit the Division Commander’s inbox. Engage early, and ask your PAO to help you build your battalion’s public persona ahead of crisis—establishing context and goodwill when your stakeholders will be receptive to it.
An informed PAO is a better PAO. I became my brigade’s PAO after company command in Iraq during the 2007 surge. We were in a hot spot, so reporters and media embeds were pouring into our area. From my time in command, I knew all about with my old battalion’s area of operations. Not only did I send “the good media” to my former teammates and the area, I gave the reporters a full, first-hand brief on the unit’s tactical challenges and recent operations as an introduction. Not all PAOs will have this built-in tactical experience, so you can take simple steps to help them speak your language: send them your SITREPs and storyboards; invite them to sit in your BUBs or training meetings; set up the PAO to join your Battalion Commander’s battlefield circulation. This also applies outside of combat: PAOs are trained to understand what is potentially ‘newsworthy’ in the good and bad sense. Get your PAO schooled up: they’ll build your Battalion’s interests into the Brigade Commander’s designated narrative.
Unique insight on your leadership. Your PAO likely thinks big. They read the news and key in on senior leader comments. They consistently dialogue with the Division. The Division PAO is a lieutenant colonel who conveys the CG’s knowledge across the Brigades. The PA ‘chain of command’ is flat because information travels fast, so your Brigade PAO likely knows more about the Division Commander’s thoughts than your Battalion Commander does. After all, two star generals spend more time mulling an operation’s public reception than reviewing the plan’s tactical details. While you and your colleagues are rightfully focused on your unit’s specific mission (and wrongfully focused on false competition with your fellow battalions), your Brigade PAO will tell you all the ways it’s not about you. Ask them how your unit can fit into and support the Brigade, Division, and HQDA publicity plans.
On-Post Propaganda. Pick up the post newspaper. Your Commander’s audiences read it. Your families read it. Your Soldiers read it when they are waiting for their CAT4 dental appointment so they don’t get kicked out of the Army. Your leaders read it. Need I say more? Your Commander or Command Sergeant Major wants to highlight your unit’s good work, and your star Soldiers’ behavior as a model for others. The post newspaper and Brigade and Division social media are easy places to do this. The sweet part is, the Brigade PAO is dying for content: just give a time and place and they will likely show up prepared to sling you some free advertising. (Pro Tip: It’s not about your battalion headquarters, and it’s not about change of command ceremonies. Connect your PAO with your company commanders and first sergeants; the stories that resonate most will be told through squads and platoons).
There is only one person in the entire Brigade who does what your PAO does. They have a small team of Soldiers who are the only ones who do what they do. PAOs are taught to understand national defense strategy, political atmospherics, and strategic implications in their initial (functional area) training as captains. They’re used to looking at things from a higher level perspective, and identifying the questions that good journalists will send your way. They’re communications experts who will help you communicate clearly and effectively.
Make the PAO part of your ‘get-sh*t-done’ network. You’ll be better for it.