Stop Treating Your Public Affairs Like Undercover Spies
I worked as a public affairs officer for the Department of Defense (DoD) for over ten years. The goal of public affairs is to educate and inform the American people, build and maintain a good reputation for the agency, influence public policy, and develop good relations with stakeholders. I worked with thousands of military and civilian leaders and personnel over the years, and sadly most of them were unaware of the importance of public affairs to the command’s mission effectiveness as well as to their own work and even job security.
Public affairs officers (PAOs) or specialists have many roles to fill—journalist, editor, event coordinator, script writer, media trainer, outreach coordinator, crisis communicator, graphic designer and much more. They must be creative in their efforts as strategic communications is constantly evolving. But creative attempts within the government are often confined because employees are so often trained on what not to say rather than what they can say and why they should be talking more.
“Too often, subject matter experts (SMEs) or even leadership do not want to engage with PAOs as it is presumed that we are direct representatives of the news media rather than of the command. We do not pass everything we know to media, most especially sensitive or classified information. Our job is to fully understand the command’s mission and tasks and communicate that information to our various audience—primarily the American public,” said retired active duty Navy PAO and current Navy civilian Public Affairs Specialist Captain Joseph F. Gradisher, USN (Ret).
The U.S. government employs 1.8M civilians with over 676K working for the DoD and an additional 1.4M active duty members. Each person is contributing to the growth and development and protection of our great nation in their individual roles. And while most of these jobs are clerical or administrative, many of them support unique missions, including the conservation of wildlife, promoting peace with the Foreign Service, manufacturing and distributing coin, providing weather forecasting, preserving heritage with the Smithsonian Institute and so much more.
What you know about each of these organizations can be directly attributed to the efforts of each units’ Public Affairs/Communications Office. What you don’t know about government operations can be attributed to one of two reasons. The classification of a project could be above secret clearance. Most people tend to lean more towards this dramatic reasoning. However, from my experience as a government communications specialist, it’s more probable that Public Affairs Peter couldn’t get Scientist Susan to return his emails or phone calls about her really cool geology project and pictures from the field were not formatted correctly and pixelated leading to an unmarketable product.
“No one knows the work better than our SMEs. The PAO cannot be expected to know the details of what everyone in a command is focused on. Rather, it is our job to talk to the SMEs, and help find ways to translate their technical jargon into plain English so the audience can better understand the issue. It is the partnership of the SMEs and PAOs that will most benefit the command and the audience,” said Gradisher.
Getting people to communicate with the communicators is a constant struggle. We often receive pushback because personnel feel it’s a waste of time or even against the rules to be interviewed or write about their special project. They often have the mentality of “I’m doing a good job at the work I signed on for, why do I have to do this ‘extra’ work?” or “I have a secret clearance so that means I’m not supposed to talk about any of my work.”
In reality, it could actually benefit you and your colleagues to share more with your public affairs office. Public affairs specialists act as unofficial lobbyists on behalf of their organizations. They sometimes do this by working with government officials directly on issues of public concern. But most often they do it indirectly by communicating the great work of the organization through different mediums to maintain a good reputation and ensure long-term support and success.
For example, when the creation of U.S. Africa Command was announced in February 2007, it “faced intense scrutiny and criticism throughout its early days.” Stakeholders included the DoD, USAID, African regional and national governments, U.S. Congress and the armed services staffing and funding the command. Some key concerns the communications team faced included distrust of Western powers given the U.S.’s colonial past with Europe and the invasion of Iraq, lack of consultation with African leaders before making the announcement and underestimating the overall change in overseas military programs, among other challenges. The communications team worked wonders through building messaging based on the importance of African partnership, leadership speeches and talking points, keeping everyone informed with internal meetings and external communication mediums, involving stakeholders in the construction process and many other tactics. “By September 2007, they had developed a very strong rapport… Many were Africanists who strongly believed in the idea of the command and wanted to see the DoD put more priority on African issues.” These efforts resulted in a formal establishment ceremony held in October 2008, and attended by U.S. ambassadors to Africa, German officials, State Department officials and USAID. (Galvin, 2019)
Public Affairs is part of your organization and most times can be directly linked to public acknowledgement of your overall success. They should not be treated as undercover spies trying to extract secret information or outcasts attempting to slow your work. They have a job to do and that is to advocate for your position and the organization you work for. So, take some time out of your busy schedule, offer them a chair and an introspective look at your work, and allow them to make magic with their little notebooks and pencils and exceptionally creative campaigns and messaging. The results will make all the difference for your organization.
TIVC’s mission is to help people work better together, and we are a proven leader in Human Enterprise Optimization recognizing that people are an organization’s greatest assets. TIVC was founded by Jean Payne in 2014. It is a CVE-certified Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business headquartered in Charles Town, W.Va. We have current and former contracts with government and commercial customers across the nation. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org for all your strategic communications needs.
Galvin, Thomas P. (2019) Two Case Studies of Successful Strategic Communications Campaigns. U.S. Army War College Press.
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