Four Lessons Military and Civilian PR Pros Can Teach – Part II

In the first post in this series, I introduced a series of stereotypes about military public affairs (PA) and civilian public relations (PR) professionals, and then highlighted real lessons that the military practitioners could learn from how their civilian counterparts practice public relations.

Now it’s time to turn the tables, and provide some good old Lee Ermey-style advice to civilian practitioners on learning from the best practices of military PA experts.

Think Before You Tweet

In the last post, I explained the importance of flexibility and adaptability when practicing public relations, as communications plans are built on an analysis grounded in a set point in time, and events can render the best-laid plans of mice and flacks obsolete. But there is still a strong value in establishing general rules and guidelines to govern many PR-related operations, and nowhere is strong guidance more valuable today than in the Wild West of social media.Civilian PR pros are blanketing the social media field these days for clients and personal promotion, squeezing every ounce of life out of Twitter, Facebook and other SM platforms for leveraging clients’ brands and messages. Yet it seems like many are making up their rules and best practices, if they have any, as they go. There are many instances of social media run amok, none more prominent of late than the misdirected tweet by the PR pro in charge of Chrysler’s twitter feed. An ill-tempered tweet deriding Detroit traffic, published to what he thought was his personal account, led not just to his firing, but lost his agency the account.

Every new frontier of communications must be tamed, but we have yet to see the consistency in social media that our role as professionals calls for. To remedy the situation, I would start civilian professionals with the U.S. Navy’s social media command handbook, a guide so clear and direct that the Los Angeles Times and Wired Magazine both praised it for its value to civilian communicators. It shows how a strong vision, clear and practical rules, and awareness of your goals can bring stability and clarity to a social media campaign. (We must also thank the military for inspiring Brian Moore’s relevant but wholly enjoyable WWII-retro posters such as “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets” and “Someone Tweeted”.)

Calling All Lifelong Learners

In 2010, I started a discussion on LinkedIn about the value of an advanced public relations education, particularly for people who did not major in a communications field. Despite being settled into the PR track, I wanted to know if a master’s in public relations would be of value. Ultimately, what I heard there and in other venues was that many civilian PR professionals, once they’ve broken into the field, harbor quiet doubts about the value of a continuing education, and celebrate the power of “experience”.

I generally agree with those professionals that PR is a field where experience can teach most of the skills and life lessons that you need. But experience can also teach bad habits, or if a job is not demanding enough, can lead to intellectual and creative stagnation.

As I mentioned in the last post, I recently completed Defense Information School, a mandatory program for military PA leaders. Despite having years of experience with press releases, public speaking, editorials, and the development of communications plans, immersing myself in the same discipline for purely educational reasons helped me refocus for a time on improving the tools and strategies at my disposal.

I graduated from the course refreshed on everything AP style to speech structure, reinvigorated in my belief that public relations has many teachable moments, and truly driven to study my discipline at greater length. I don’t think this post would exist if the education and learning bug had not bitten me again, and driven to explore anew my profession. In short, I was retrained as a lifelong learner, in the classroom as well as in the field.

The military excels at requiring that its professionals, from PA advisors to tank commanders, have career-spanning educational encounters, with positive effects on the continued growth of the individual over the course of a career. Civilian professionals would be well served to cling to the eye-opening joy of being a lifelong learner, and to continually evaluate the value of educational opportunities throughout their careers.

Rules of the Road

When I first reported to my current military assignment, I was impressed and somewhat daunted to find myself operating out of a large binder with step-by-step “check the box” instructions, contact information for media professionals around the country, and past work products to guide me as I performed my job.

But as a reservist, working on an irregular basis to support full-time personnel, I quickly grew to appreciate the ability to turn to a book that was more orderly in its advice than anything I had ever been provided in a civilian job. Nowhere is the positive side of adhering to strict plans and rules more positively employed than when it serves as an enabler to newcomers.

Whenever a PR/PA professional is taking on a new job, either at the employer or client level, there is a period of adaptation and trial-and-error before s/he is comfortable and qualified to provide quality work products. Providing short cuts in the form of comprehensive, understandable instructions and guides eliminates the guesswork of the basic tasks of the job and enables professionals to immediately tap into their higher-level consciousness and creativity, providing the best work product possible to the client as soon as possible.

Know Your Surroundings

There is a great deal of healthy discussion in the military about how public affairs relates to the broader discipline of “information operations” (IO), which includes the entire genus of activities related to the collection, use and dissemination of information. While it can be a challenge for the PR professional to keep tabs on all IO activities in any organization or community, it is important to develop an awareness of where public relations efforts contribute to or rely on other information operations.

While PR professionals are often hired or contracted to work on a narrow set of tasks—build a brand online, develop a comprehensive local media campaign, etc.—there is always value in developing a situational awareness around other departments’ use of information. In the military, this is known as the information environment, referring to “the aggregate of individuals, organizations and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.” Awareness of the environment can allow the PR professional to act in a more nuanced or precise manner than would otherwise be possible if they were focused narrowly on the execution of their own strategic plan in disregard of related or conflicting activities and information within their environment.

To quote from a DINFOS lecture, “Information is a strategic resource … operations depend on information and information systems for many simultaneous and integrated activities.” PR professionals should strive to collect and understand as much of that strategic resource as possible to maximize their value to their employer or client, and to ensure that their own work is as informed as possible by the entire real of a client’s information operations.

In Closing

Though this two-part series was dreamed up before @Frank_Strong published his March piece on “6 Things the Army Taught Me About PR,” I would be remiss not to point people in his direction as well, as he prepares to deploy overseas with the Army. He points out that, “At times the work in uniform can be amazingly similar to my work in PR.” And despite the differences I am highlighting, I agree with him. Bravo Zulu, Frank.

About Brian Wagner

Brian Wagner is an account director for an international public relations firm, and a military public affairs officer. Follow or contact him on Twitter @BBWags. All views are his own and do not represent those of his employers.

6 Comments

  1. Good article. Can’t agree with you and Frank more. Plans and guidelines work and they don’t restrict creativity if employed properly. They do focus limited resources into the most effective areas, especially when there are so many communication channels to choose from.

    I started my military career in the armoured corps as a scout car driver. As the saying goes in that line of work “time spent on recce (reconnaissance) is seldom wasted.” As I learned in my leadership roles as an officer, preparation – knowing both the situation you are going into and the resources you can deploy are key.

    Career-wise, ongoing education is important since the tools and available resources available are constantly (and these days – rapidly) changing. Those who don’t adapt (properly), perish. You also need to ad skills as you move up in an organization and and your area of responsibility expands in scope.

    Just like military operations, if you base your (communications) planning on knowledge, are constantly aware of your environment, and are prepared to flex when the situation dictates, you will be successful.

  2. Good article. Can’t agree with you and Frank more. Plans and guidelines work and they don’t restrict creativity if employed properly. They do focus limited resources into the most effective areas, especially when there are so many communication channels to choose from.

    I started my military career in the armoured corps as a scout car driver. As the saying goes in that line of work “time spent on recce (reconnaissance) is seldom wasted.” As I learned in my leadership roles as an officer, preparation – knowing both the situation you are going into and the resources you can deploy are key.

    Career-wise, ongoing education is important since the tools and available resources available are constantly (and these days – rapidly) changing. Those who don’t adapt (properly), perish. You also need to add skills as you move up in an organization and and your area of responsibility expands in scope.

    Just like military operations, if you base your (communications) planning on knowledge, are constantly aware of your environment, and are prepared to flex when the situation dictates, you will be successful.

  3. Another great post, Brian. I’m sure LCDR Lykins at CHINFO appreciated the shout-out for the Navy’s social media handbook … 😉 The Army recently posted a great social media reference for its personnel too, which provided a ton a good info and practices. The DODLive story can be found at http://armylive.dodlive.mil/index.php/2011/01/u-s-army-social-media-handbook-is-here/

    I frequent Journalistics often and I hope to read more from you here in the near future.

  4. A solid read, Brian. Far as tweeting goes, I like to borrow from the teachings of old for the modern social media free-for-all I’ve been seeing. Simply, think before you tweet. Even when an organization hasn’t taken the time yet to draft a comprehensive handbook (Go Navy!!) common sense should be the plan of the day. Words live forever whether on the pages of the Wall Street Journal or your most recent pithy tweet. Just as errors get made when trying to scoop the other newspaper in town, so too do you leave yourself open for MAJOR embarrassment if you just have to have to have be the first one to tweet something out to the universe. Yes, you can delete a posting, but not before someone catches your faux pas and gleefully shares the gaffe with competitors and clients alike. Funny just isn’t worth your career or reputation, or that of your client.

    • JC, very good points. Yet many people seem to forgot all the basic rules when they hit the Internet. This causes issues not just for Twitter, etc. but in the broader picture enables things like cyber bullying because people don’t think about the real world consequences of their actions.

  5. Belated thanks for linking to Frank’s guest post, Brian. I particularly appreciate your point about being a life-long learner; too many PR practitioners think they can make it up as they go along. Well, we all do that to some extent, but we’ve also got to keep learning.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. What Military and Civilian PAO/PR Professionals Can Teach Each Other

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*