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Military PR Careers: Insights from Iraq

July 25th, 2008 · 11 Comments

  LTC Paul Swiergosz

Public Affairs Officer, Camp Victory, Iraq

What does a public affairs officer in the Armed Forces do and is it a good career move? Two questions I’ve been asked a lot over the years by military and civilians alike. So here’s the deal:

The Armed Services, all “grow” their PAOs in different ways. The Army has their prospective PAOs work in other areas (supply, intelligence, combat, etc.) in order to gain operational experience before allowing them to transition to the public affairs career field around their 8th year of service. In contrast, the Air Force commissions its officers directly into the PAO career field from scratch. The Navy, and Marine Corps take a hybrid approach between the Army and Air Force. Pros and cons to all the systems – way too complicated to dive into here.   

Despite the different evolutions and different uniforms our jobs are remarkably similar due to standardized training and scope of work defined in the Defense Principles of Information.  As for me, I attended college via an Army ROTC scholarship with a major in public relations/journalism.  After graduation, I was commissioned as an officer and spent my first eight years in the armor corps, commanding tank formations until I transitioned over to the public affairs officer career field, where I have worked for over 10 years. 

The three primary functions of military public affairs are command information (a form of internal communication), media relations and community relations (both self-explanatory). We do these at home and deployed in some austere environments. It makes for a challenging job that puts both creativity and character to the test.  

As PA (vice PR) practitioners we are bound by the aforementioned DoD principles as well as public law. We have no advertising, marketing or polling budgets because we are forbidden to from doing either to the American people (recruiting advertising is NOT part of my job and not covered by the same rules).  And believe me, it’s a tiresome task to always depend on others’ handouts and secondary research. 

In many ways you could compare us to the biggest non-profit you’ve ever seen – only one that has a billion dollar budget, is responsible to Congress and the American people and occasionally does their job in a combat zone (by the way, Capitol Hill does NOT count as a combat zone although it can sometimes feel like it).  Like non-profits, we have to leverage events for publicity and compete within the noise of the global information environment to tell the story of the men and women who make up our institutions. Occasionally, we have to defend our institutions as well, via crisis management as during the 2007 Walter Reed scandal

It has been difficult at times, but I can say I’m both satisfied of the career choice I made and proud to have had the opportunity to serve my country doing something I truly love doing. To be sure, the Army has gotten good use out of me. But when I am eligible to retire at the spry young age of 43, I will have a full military pension, veteran’s benefits, two fully-funded degrees, 20 years of hands-on planning and leadership experience and 12 years practical public affairs education and experience to put on my resume. I’d call it a fair trade, and knowing everything I know now – yeah, I’d absolutely do it all over again. 

Here’s a quick look at my PA/PR glide path:

  • Public Affairs Plans and Media Officer – U.S. Army Europe (3 years)
  • Press Relations spokesperson – Pentagon (3 years)
  • Public Affairs Officer – 10th Mountain Division, Task Force Mountain and Multi-National Division – Center (Iraq) (1+ year)
  • Fully-funded PR/journalism degrees; Ketchum Chicago Fellowship (3 + non-consecutive years)

 

Tags: Day in the Life · Job Search

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Josh // Jul 25, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Sir:

    I’m coming to the end of a six-year enlistment with the Army National Guard as a tanker and scout. (Glad to see you were armor at one time, hooah!) I don’t want to stay in the military as a soldier, but I’d love to work for the Army as a civilian in a PR function. I have a degree in journalism and will finish a Master’s in PR this year. Do you know if there are often any opportunities for civilians to work as PAOs for the Army at all? Keep up the good work!

    — Josh
    joshuadelung@gmail.com

  • 2 Paul // Jul 26, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Josh, am sitting here in my tanker’s boots as I type.

    To answer your question, there are tons of positions as DA or DoD civilians in the public affairs world. Guess I should have mentioned that in my post – duh. There are acually more civilian positions than uniformed…

    Here’s a link to the Army’s Civilian Personnel online site. You can register, look for jobs in different states, etc.,

    http://www.cpol.army.mil/

    Make sure you check with your own state’s NG headquarters as well – they may have openings right there in your own backyard.

    But don’t confine yourself to the Army either. The Navy, Air Force – even the Coast Guard – has openings. Remember, the key is to get into the field, start working and gaining experience. With a few degrees under your belt you will be a desireable commodity – most service PAs do not have a lot (or any) formal communciations education. A good educational foundation mixed with experience makes the best PR/PA practitioner.

    Best of luck!

  • 3 Roland Cailles // Jul 29, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Mr. Swiergosz, thanks for sharing this with us. I’m a public relations major and have always wondered how my skills would be transferable to the military.

    I like your metaphor of a non-profit. I never thought about it that way.

    If I may ask, can you delve deeper into the command information aspect of your job? Specifically, I’m curious about inaccurate information, which I imagine rears its ugly head often in your situation.

  • 4 Uncle Bill Eastham // Jul 29, 2008 at 9:07 am

    I was the PAO at New Mexico Military Institute for nearly 15 years and it was the best job on the post. I reported directly to the superintendent and nobody knew exactly what I did. It was also like walking around with a hand grenade in one hand and the pin in the other. Everybody left you alone, but one mistake and you’re history. If you have any notions about working on a newspaper when you get out, forget it. The newspaper business is going to hell in a handbasket. Some big papers have gone down the toilet and bigger ones are on the verge of it. Nobody is hiring. News reporting being what it is today, however, I’m glad I got out when I did. Mainline news reporters today are a bunch of grave diggers, and while they are digging graves for others, they’re also digging their own. You were a snot-nosed captain the last time I saw you. You gonna make bird before you retire? We’d be right proud if you did, not that we aren’t already.

  • 5 Paul // Jul 29, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Roland, you asked about command information. In the business world, it would be the same as a business’s internal/corporate communication: the company newsletter, website, blog, magazine, etc.,

    Over here (Iraq) we publish a daily web-based newsletter that contains stories of interest for the Soldiers. We figured out pretty quick that putting out a print product would be highly ineffective given the Soldeirs in Task Force Mountain live on over 50 small outposts in Central/Southern Iraq. Electrons are the way to go.

    We’re also looking to stand up the taskforcemountain.com website in the next week or so. Also accessible to Soldiers but to the public as well. Will offer a wider range of stories, photos, audio, video and blog. Helps families (and the American public) keep in touch with their loved ones who are deployed. We’ve found it vitally important for everyone invloved to try and maintain as much connection as possible. Helps the families back home understand what we’re doing and why – also let’s them see the lifestyle a little bit through photos and video. And it is a super shot of morale for the troops when their families back home get to see them at work.

    Generally speaking, we don’t have a hard time with inaccurate information in this arena – all the content is our own so if we make a mistake, it’s completely on us.

    But you bring up a good point about inaccurate information. Just yesterday there was a “report” about 7 Iraqis shot on their way to a pilgrimage. The Iraqi authories and us investigated and found no evidence to support the AP story that came from the anonymous tip. Of course, CNN and most every other news organization here picked up the AP story. We spent most of Sunday and Monday trying to disprove a negative – and you know how hard that is. AP wouldn’t retract their story (they had two anonymous tipsters and since when would AP ever admit to being WRONG?!) and that was that. Am I 99.9% positive this was purposeful disinformation by the bad guys to discredit the Iraqi Security Forces who are really kicking ass over here? Absolutely. But all I can do is tell them we have no information to verify their claim and move on.

    So yes, those situations happen frequently and yes, they are ugly. Where we prove our value as communicators though is when we counsel our boss that the rash pushback or letter to the editor is ill-advised. Cooler heads need to prevail. Don’t pick a fight with the guy who buys his ink by the barrel (or his electrons by the bushel or whatever the 21st century coloquialism is…)

    And Bill, your assessment of the news business isn’t too far off the mark. As my last illustration represents, the professionalism in journalism is often superceded by the cut-throat nature of the business these days.

    Am happy to report I am still snot-nosed. And loving every minute of it. Cheers!

  • 6 Roland Cailles // Jul 31, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Wow, that Web site idea is genius, especially for helping soldiers communicate with their loved ones.

    Thanks for your answer Paul!

  • 7 Paul // Jul 31, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Thanks, but genius and my name don’t really fit in the same sentence… actually they don’t belong on the same page. Took the idea from someone else and looked to make some improvements.

    Should go hot in another week or so. Check it out at: http://www.taskforcemountain.com

    Best of luck!

  • 8 Kyle // Aug 8, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Thank you so much for your posts they has been amazingly helpful so far. I am a government major at the University of Texas and will be graduating in May 2009. My father recently retired from the US Army after 20 years of work in Military Intelligence. He now works for one of the many defense contract companies that currently exist doing much of the same type work he did while he was in. There are many father/son partners in his company and the work seems interesting although my background doesn’t quite fit the bill. I am much more interested in Information Warfare and Public Affairs as related to our country’s situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. I currently intern for a very reputable Public Affairs firm in Austin, TX and have learned a ton about PA in the private sector. My question for you Paul is, are their entry level(recent undergraduate degree) civilian positions in Public Affairs working for a contracted company similar to the one that employs my father. I am very interested in the Department of Defense opportunities but feel it would be unwise to not consider contract companies as well. After all, although not all good, many of these companies provide very important pieces in our efforts to stifle terrorism and spread democracy. Any good information you could pass along would be greatly appreciated as I have found it hard to come by.

  • 9 Paul // Aug 8, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Kyle, first let me say thanks to your dad for his time and service – one brother to another.

    As for your question, “Are there any entry level civilian positions?” my answer would be “as there are stars in the sky.” Really. No kidding.
    We use them all the time to augment our own capabilities and do some of the niche things we don’t have the time/ability to train our young soldiers to do. For instance, while I won’t name the company currently under contract for us here – I currently have two young (as in under 25) PA professionals working for me doing editing, marketing, pitching and idea generation. They are here – deployed with my team in Iraq – as civilian contractors.

    You mentioned information warfare and I’m glad you did. It’s got a bum rap as something devious and underhanded. What it really is, is a means of taking the offensive to the enemy misinformation machine. We fight their lies with our truth – it’s information; it’s warfare. Duh. Don’t know how people could mess that one up except that we don’t do a good job explaining it. Oh, wait – I just did, didn’t I?…

    Whether it’s a traditional PA route you take – like my contractors provide, or the information warfare route – that has a broader scope and pertains mostly to foreign audiences, there are many companies and their needs are great – especially for someone young, healthy and adventurous who is willing to get some dirt on their hands out in the field. (And I mean that in a literal way).

    Here’s my only caution: As you mention, some of the companies frankly aren’t that good. The government awards contracts to the lowest bidder – not always the best. Examine those with current contracts – look who they’re working for and see how effective their communication efforts have been. A loser can’t hide for very long in this business – oh, they can survive as a business entity, but their reputation will speak for itself.

    I’m sure your dad knows many of the major companies currently doing contract work – there are dozens of them. Do your homework, get your resume into the mix and jump in with both feet.

    Best of luck – maybe I’ll see you over here sometime soon.

  • 10 Amanda // Jul 22, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Paul, thank you for all you do and influencing me in back in Albania in 99..I have since gotten out of the PAO field, but you will always be an inspiration to me. MRE’s always remind me of Charming, Prince.

  • 11 The Military’s Civilian PR Option // Aug 31, 2010 at 6:45 am

    […] spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.   Read earlier guest post with front-lines public affairs insights from LTC Paul […]

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