by Kevin Sandell
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series focused on improving your unit’s communication efforts through your Public Affairs Office. The second part of this series will be published later this spring.
An on-post training accident occurs involving your unit’s Soldiers, and now the local news media are calling – what do you do and who do you contact? You need talking points and messaging for the rollout of the Army’s new sexual harassment policy – who do you contact? Your unit just received an accolade from an Army Senior Leader – how do you get the word out and promote your team?
Public Affairs Officers and NCOs are professionally-trained to appropriately respond to these types of scenarios, and face them daily. As experts in public information, command information, and community relations, your unit’s PAO should be the first resource to synchronize your unit’s communication efforts. Additionally, as seen in recent overseas contingency events, providing credible, accurate, and timely information is the best way to counter mis- and disinformation and propaganda, which can lead to deterred competitors and defeated adversaries.
Yet, many public affairs soldiers are underutilized, ill-equipped, and often an afterthought among the commander and fellow staff.
This article will hopefully change that approach and provide tips to leverage the unit PAO for organizational success.
According to Field Manual 3-61, Communication Strategy and Public Affairs Operations, “Modern technology provides commanders with a greater ability to shape and affect the information environment by implementing their [public affairs] and visual information capabilities … Commanders’ communication influences internal and external audiences, as communication links information to decisions and decisions to actions” (p. 1-1). The unit PAO is the commander’s principal advisor for media relations, command information, crisis communications, visual information, communication synchronization, and community engagement.
When provided with the commander’s intent on communication efforts to internal and external audiences, the PAO can then coordinate themes, messages, supporting narratives, talking points, and imagery across the unit. Commanders and staff can bolster their unit PAO’s capabilities, and ultimately improve the unit, by applying these 10 considerations:
- Empower them to get things done. Your unit PAO wears the same uniform as you and is an ambassador for your unit. Provide them the commander’s intent, clear tasks, and a purpose. You may be pleasantly surprised with how your public affairs team covers a story and amplifies it across multiple communication channels, such as news media or social media. PAOs often work with minimal guidance and are self-starters and creative thinkers; let them use their talents to tell your unit’s story.
- Be specific about the key audiences you’re trying to reach. A commander typically has multiple audiences to reach – subordinate leaders and soldiers, family members, garrison staff, nearby veterans and military retirees, unit “alumni,” elected officials, local communities, etc. Provide your unit PAO with your key audiences at a micro level. For example, instead of saying, “I need to reach my soldiers” say, “I need to reach my squad leaders, or those E-5 and E-6 NCOs.” By drilling down to specific audiences, you provide the PAO with specific communication objectives, which then help identify specific communication tactics and platforms.
- Focus on two to three key social media platforms (Be mindful of who you’re trying to reach). Public affairs teams at the tactical levels are only manned by 2-5 people and cannot be expected to effectively administer more than three social media platforms. Identify your key audiences and what platforms they are using and use those. Typically, younger soldiers use Instagram, YouTube, and others, whereas older populations like other commanders and senior NCOs may use Facebook or Twitter. Meet your key audiences where they are; don’t make it a chore for your intended audiences to find information on a platform they don’t use.
- Ensure your PAO is linked in with your higher headquarters’ PAO. Regardless of whether your higher headquarters is a division, corps, or an Army Command, ensure your PAO is keeping them informed. Not only do higher headquarters not like to be surprised by unpleasant news, but they can help mitigate the fallout of a negative event, and provide guidance, amplification, and further messaging to help promote your unit.
- Provide the resources necessary for the job. PAOs cannot do their jobs with just writing ability, photography skills, and keen intellect. Telling a compelling story requires tools of the trade. Equip your public affairs (PA) teams with Go-Pro cameras, audio recorders, premium memberships to Canva and/or the Adobe Creative Suite, proactive use of Facebook Live and Instagram Live, and other unique tools that can make a story come to life through multimedia storytelling. Much like #1, give your PAOs room to be creative and let them surprise you with how the story is told.
- Invite the PAO to your morning huddles and afternoon closeouts. Many commanders host team huddles daily to discuss hot topics, emerging concerns, etc. By inviting your PAO to join the CDR, CSM, CoS/XO, and S3/G3 (and maybe even the SJA), the PAO can offer insights and counsel into the information environment and public sentiment. They can also hear directly from the command group about key events, operations, or missions, and prioritize those for public affairs coverage.
- Welcome reporters to your events and have them participate as media role-players in training. The news media serve as a vital conduit for getting your information to key audiences and should not be avoided. Invite local TV, newspaper, and radio reporters to cover your unit’s operations and training; and have them play media role-players in your training exercises. Not only do you develop relationships with them, but it also exposes your soldiers to the media on the battlefield.
- Maximize your Unit Public Affairs Representatives (UPARs). Your Unit Public Affairs Representatives are force multipliers for your battalions and companies that doctrinally do not have trained PAOs. Ensure they are synched with the BDE/DIV PAO team and provide them the same resources you provide your PAO. Your communication efforts will pay off quickly by using UPARs.
- Enhance their skills through creative storytelling and professional courses. Humans connect with one another through storytelling, and storytelling is as old a human function as there is. Encourage your PAO to find unique ways to tell a captivating multimedia story, and like #5, equip them accordingly. Allow them to attend courses that enhance skills and benefit your unit, like FEMA’s Basic and Advanced Public Information Officer (PIO) training for emergency communications. Simply said, put more tools in their storytelling toolkit.
- Recognize their work. Oftentimes, PA soldiers are behind the camera capturing someone else’s success and accomplishments. It can be a thankless job, so pull that soldier out and take a picture with him/her, publicly recognize them at formations, and enter their work into public affairs competitions, like the Army’s annual MG Keith L. Ware Communication Awards Competition.
Commanders and staff have a greater ability to shape and affect today’s information environment and should synchronize their communication efforts by engaging the PAO early and often. So, how do you get the word out?
MAJ Kevin Sandell is an Army Public Affairs Officer with the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (OCPA) at the Pentagon. He has served as a PAO for 11 of his 15-year Army career, including as a Brigade Combat Team PAO, Public Affairs Detachment Commander, MI Brigade PAO, acting Deputy PAO at U.S. Army Central, and as a Public Affairs Planner at OCPA. He has deployed three times to Afghanistan and Kosovo, and holds degrees from Olivet Nazarene University, Georgetown University, and Regent University.