LTC Paul Swiergosz
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)