Four Lessons Military and Civilian PR Pros Can Teach Each Other

If you were going to stereotype military public affairs (PA) professionals, you would say that they lack creativity, obsess over planning and structure, and would jail their own mother if she proposed an outreach plan with any risk.

Civilian public relations (PR) professionals on the other hand obsess over the latest social media trends, fly by the seat of their pants, and tout experience over education. Over and over again.

Like all stereotypes, they are unfair to many. But there is often truth behind the broad brushstrokes. Both communities, to break free of their stereotypes, would do well to study and learn from each other. The field of public relations, despite lacking commonly accepted rules and best practices, does not lack for common sense behaviors or best practices. Recognizing these commonalities will ultimately lead to improved campaigns for all PA and PR professionals.

Today’s post will cover four lessons military PA pros can take away from the civilian world, and in a follow-up post, I’ll cover lessons civilian PR professionals can learn from observing the military.

1. Don’t Check Your Creativity At the Door

As a military reservist, I attended Defense Information School, the military’s advanced training ground for its PA professionals. It was a fascinating and useful experience, but the primary lesson is there is a strict set of rules and structures governing the art of military public affairs.

Whether you are giving a speech, writing a press release, or planning an event, you are encouraged to adhere precisely to the rules of the road. Reading through classwork examples, it was obvious how easily one could become a slave to the rules (much like teachers “teaching to the test”), drilling in with a laser focus on the requirements and foregoing any obligation to entertain and engage the reader.

Military publications must adhere to getting across the five W’s (who, what, when, where, why) and H (how). Facts alone, stripped of the trappings of creative construction, do not make for exciting reading. Getting across essential information to essential audiences is a fundamental purpose of public relations, but the impact of and receptivity to that information correlates to how enjoyable the item in question is for the reader to consume.

Regardless of the rules that must be adhered to, every PA/PR professional must strive to become an expert storyteller, combining logic and structure with engaging anecdotes, useful facts, and a liveliness that transcends the drab language best-suited for a “just the facts, ma’am” police report.

Creativity is not against the rules; it’s just harder to be creative when your primary goal is to adhere to the rules. While you probably won’t be able to drive a tank into the middle of Times Square and shoot t-shirts to 10,000 screaming military fans, there are far more reasonable strategies and tactics you could deploy, both in words and in actions. It’s up to you to figure out what creativity still falls within the guidelines to work with. But develop your messages and stories first, then shape them to match the rules.

2. A Plan is Only Worth the Paper It’s Written On

Colin Powell once said that, “no plan survives first contact with a real enemy.” The military PA community does, in my experience, a better job than the civilian PR community in planning before acting, including creating concise public affairs guidance (PAG) packages. Many civilian PR professionals, including myself at times, believe that they can only plan for the “known knowns”, but are not confident preparing for the “known unknowns” and Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” (confused yet?), and use that lack of foresight as a convenient excuse to fall back on reactive or crisis-oriented PR, because their plans can never exactly match up to the circumstances. Or, alternately, they blame the client for expecting them to act before they have time to plan.

But it is also important to recognize that a good plan is only a framework for action, and that once a plan is acted upon, the entire reality upon which the plan was built can shift dramatically. At that point, flexibility and adaptability are extraordinarily valuable traits.

There is a clear value in having a comprehensive communications plan at the start of a campaign to create a basic orientation and shared understanding. But remember, like the pirate’s code in Pirates of the Caribbean, a communications plan is “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

In an ideal world, every PA/PR pro will start with a nuanced communications plan, and then will execute their campaigns with the expectation that a willingness to be flexible and adaptable will ensure success. Seize new opportunities that present themselves, react and adapt to changing conditions you didn’t anticipate.

Ultimately, a plan is merely a guiding light in the darkness, not a magical map that unerringly points to the proper destination.

3. The Best Defense in PR is a Good Offense

Success in public relations is measured not just by how many press releases you send out or how many events you host, but also by how successfully you react to unusual conditions or crises.

Yet I have found that some military PA pros retreat into damage control mode when uncertainty or negative feedback enters their system – when the braver and smarter approach is to seize the proverbial hill. I have generally encountered greater flexibility among civilian PR pros when it comes to countering adversity, though there are plenty of corporate PR pros who are just as cautious.

In 2011, total message control is a myth. With all the outlets that now exist for spreading information, from Twitter to the classic telephone call, messages will get out. Playing defense ensures that you are reacting when bad news breaks, instead of preempting it with positive messages and actions. As Doug Bedell writes for all practitioners, “Forget about message control and be part of message development.” PA professionals cannot manage their world so that it perfectly aligns with their preferences, and retreating into a defensive posture when reality intervenes is self-defeating.

The most successful PR and PA professionals are the ones who prepare for every eventuality, yet react with the same confidence and aggressiveness when unforeseen situations arise. They do not wait for the next piece of bad news to break across their bow; instead, they pursue another positive story, another great photo op to counter the more unflattering attention.

In short, they overwhelm any negative stories with a flood of aggressive storytelling. They know that they cannot control every eventuality, so they concede a few defeats in battle, and prepare for victory in the greater war.

4. The Media is NOT the Enemy

There is a historical belief among some in the military PA community, particularly those who believe we should have won in Vietnam, that the media is an opponent or ‘enemy’ of the military and the country. This has been noted in numerous papers including Army Major Barry Venable’s 2002 “The Army and the Media.” Military PA professionals who hold an adversarial, negative view of the media will find that their effectiveness is limited in pushing their messages and supporting their commands.

Things are a little different today. Newer generations of PA professionals are becoming increasingly aware that the media is not a friend or an enemy, but an interlocutor prone to the normal human biases, both positive and negative. One needs only to look at the new embedding policies that the military has for bringing in journalists to deploy in the field with the men and women in uniform, largely free of any censorship. While there are risks here, the risks are now being judged to be acceptable given the proven returns. And that is a very positive development.

In Closing

In the second part of this post, running on Tuesday, April 5, I will cover what civilian practitioners can learn from military PR pros. Thanks to Journalistics for letting me start a conversation in this great forum for conversation and ideas.

About Brian Wagner

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


  1. I hope you take a look at the work done on the Army Strong campaign for you post next week. I lead a great group of Army PA specialists who communicated the value of being a Soldier to aid in the recruiting effort. Much of what we began 3-4 years ago is just now being recognized as being very forward thinking. Happy to share my thoughts with you.

  2. I also graduated from DINFOS, one of the last two Canadian exchange officers to do so in March 2005 (the Canadian Forces has since created its own basic course for PAOs). I am now retired from the Canadian Forces (CF) and working for a non-profit as their PR Manager.

    One thing you must consider when comparing the two worlds is what is their ultimate goal and what constraints do they operate under? The military PR practitioner operates under a much more narrow and restrictive mandate than does their civilian counterpart, both by law and in principle.

    Even given the restrictions imposed on military PR, I was able to be creative and very effective as a PAO in the CF because I had the backing of my superiors. I think this is the same in civilian and military settings. Communications is driven by the operational leaders. Those leaders that embrace the need for good PR and are directly involved and in contact with their PR managers are much more flexible in allowing creativity. Those that see PR as a “bolt on” and have PR report through several layers of bureaucracy are much more likely to stifle creativity and the effectiveness of PR.

    I also find that I am much better equipped to handle a changing situation by knowing the basics inside and out. By knowing how to economically answer the W’s and H’s, I have earned the attention of editors and news directors. I have been very successful in garnering good coverage for my employers by knowing the tools of my trade.

    I also guest lecture at a college and have had contact with newly graduated PR professionals from university and college post-grad programs. I find many have great knowledge of theoretical practice, but can’t find an effective hook, write a compelling release or follow a plan to maximize effectiveness. I see many either jumping at new ideas, or dismissing them out of hand without considering “How does this fit into achieving the goals of my plan and how does it affect my other tactics or approaches?”

    In the end, I see PR like any other profession – there are those practitioners who will be journeymen – able to plod through the basics and have a moderate level of success, there are those who will just not “get it” – and need constant rescuing, and there are the stars – who will be able to take almost any situation and turn it into a successful PR opportunity. The stars will not remain in an organization that stifles them, they will seek opportunities to shine.

    This is true for all PR professionals regardless if they were taught their trade in the military or in the civilian world.


  3. Good series. Read your second post first, now this one which I find more persuasive.

    They are both well written, but I sense you pulling your punches a bit since you have a proverbial foot in each camp.

  4. Brian,

    Thoroughly enjoyed the post along with the flood of good (and not so good) memories from my career in military PR.

    You make an excellent point about military PR training, but as a former instructor, I have to stick up for my colleagues at the Defense Information School. It’s a challenge when your curriculum must be approved by all the services – each with their own agendas/requirements. You’re always “failing too many students” and courses are being called “too long.” The result is trying to cram about two years of college into someone’s brain and crank out a steady stream of qualified, entry-level-ready professionals each year. But as history has shown, no organization can do all of that with as much success as DINFOS.

    On your note about creativity, I agree that sometimes the military can be hampered by its own nature. I have had the privilege of serving with some of the most creative individuals imaginable. And sadly in several instances, their creativity exceeded military tolerances, so they moved on to other things, which wound up being a loss for the military and a boon for the civilian PR world.

    During my 25+ years, I saw a slow change for the better when it came to acceptance of public affairs and the creativity it needs, but it still has a long way to go. We still have too many senior personnel who consider reporters the enemy, public affairs a reactive tool, and creativity in communication a big risk.

    Thanks for your insight because this was a great post. I’m headed over to part two right now!! 😀

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