PAOs: Superheroes, lifesavers, or master communicators? Maybe all three…

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am an Army Officer, and have been for 15 years.  Somewhere in the middle of my time, I decided I needed to go a different direction.  The Army was reeling from a huge amount of bad press; Abu Ghraib, Walter Reed, Army Suicide rates, to name a few.  Being in the Army and watching us take the beating in the nightly news was painful for me.  I decided I needed to find a way to tell America about the good in the Army, and that the bad stuff wasn’t the norm.  I transitioned into being a Public Affairs Officer.

That’s great, right?  I get to be a spokesperson for the Army, tell the Army’s story, be at the forefront of the media engagement process.  Yeah, none of that happened…well, not exactly, anyway.  I was trained for Public Affairs, but what did that actually mean?  What was I going to do or what was I supposed to do?

According to Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA Pam) 600-3 (), as well as the Army’s Public Affairs doctrinal publication, FM 3-61, (Army Public Affairs), the mission of Army Public Affairs is to “fulfill the Army’s obligation to keep the American people and the Army informed. Public Affairs operations help establish the conditions that lead to trust and confidence in America’s Army in peacetime and war.”

Army Public Affairs officers do so much for the military.  We are the commander’s communications expert.  Not with communications architecture; but with communications techniques for internal and external audiences, crisis communications, media relations, and a whole host of other things.  We provide “trusted advice and counsel on the public implications of the organization’s operations.”  We are the “primary capability supporting the commander’s task to inform, focusing on providing information to domestic and global audiences.”

Army Public Affairs Officers (or PAOs) are responsible for doing the following core processes:

  1. Advise the commander and staff
  2. Conduct Public Affairs planning
  3. Conduct public communication
  4. Conduct media facilitation and engagement
  5. Conduct Public Affairs Training

But what characteristics make Public Affairs Officers distinct from other officers?  Well, they must be proficient in their basic branches (PAOs are from all branches of the Army), must understand key participants in the information domain, and experts in social media platforms, just to name a few.  PAOs need to have the foresight and forethought to determine second and third order effects; they must be agile and creative thinkers; understand strategic vision and see the big picture; create collaborative understanding; enhance relationships and communications through cultural awareness; and apply ethical reasoning.

PAOs must also possess many soft skills, like interpersonal skills (including speaking and listening skills, leadership skills, and coaching, mentoring, and facilitation skills), conceptual and decision-making skills (which include sound judgment, critical and creative thinking, independent and able to make decisions with little or no supervision, and ability to work under pressure in high stress environments), and tactical and technical skills (like professional knowledge, judgment and warfighting, communication, counseling and advising skills, information management skills; internal, external, interpersonal, organizational, intercultural, and mass communications skills; innovative  and adaptive).

PAOs serve at every echelon of the Army from Brigade to the Pentagon.  They are uniquely positioned in brigades in order to best communicate the tactical employment of Army forces to external audiences.  They are positioned at Division, Corps, Army, and higher levels to communicate operationally and strategically.  They – we – hold a special place on a commander’s staff.

So how does this translate into a civilian career, you may ask.  Let me start that explanation with a story.  My civilian employer brought in a new plant manager several months ago.  We had a short conversation after he had been in the position for a little more than a month about what I do for the Army.  I explained to him that we are the communicators for the Army.  Our job is to communicate with the American people and Congress specifically about the Army’s mission both at home and abroad.  This manager then said to me, “Well, the Army has always sucked at communicating with people.”  I reminded him that in the last 15 years, we had rebuilt two nations and that feat cannot be done by kicking in doors and pointing guns in people’s faces.  It was during that conversation that I realized how woefully uninformed that he was.  And if he was uninformed, then how many other people and employers had no clue about what Army officers bring to the table (hence the early advent of this blog).

I have been doing my best in this organization to communicate the value of PAOs to civilian employers; from privately held employers, to globally operating ones.  PAOs can be a major tool in an employer’s kit bag for communicating with their employees, furthering safety awareness programs, enhancing training and understanding, and communicating employee concerns to management and leadership teams.  We can’t do that without being experts on the equipment they use, safety protocols and regulations, or interpersonal interactions between employees and managers.  One of the first things in did in this organization was to identify a passive way to communicate with their employees through safety videos on the breakroom televisions.  This technique is simple in that every employee must take a break at some time during their shift, and whether or not they watch the safety videos, in their subconscious mind, they are taking in the information.  I don’t have any statistics to back up my claim that safety has improved in the workplace because of the videos, but I can say that near-miss reporting and awareness in the plant has increased while actual incidents concerning injury have gone down.

PAOs are also skilled at crisis communication and media relations.  PAOs would fit in nicely in public relations firms across the country.  Imagine your company having a major accident where lives were lost, chemicals were spilled, food contaminated, or whatever worst case scenario would be for your company.  Are you prepared to deal with that?  Do you have an internal communications capability?  Do you have the capability to communicate with the media and surrounding areas about your issue?  Is your corporate office located across the country and they are disconnected from your issue?  Having a PAO in your midst would save you a lot of hassle and money (because hiring a PR firm may not be in the budget for emergencies).

I may not be an expert in everything, but I do know how to talk to the media without spinning a story or outright lying to them.  The people that surround your facilities or plants or whatever have a right to know, and in times of emergencies, a need to know, what is going on, what you are doing about it, and how you’re planning to prevent it from happening in the future.  Imagine Chernobyl occurring because of something going horribly wrong at your facility.  If you don’t prepare for disasters and how to communicate out of them, you run this risk.  Just look at Blue Bell ice cream and their response to a listeria outbreak in one of their facilities.  The impact was felt in all their plants, distribution centers, and retailers.  Denying the facts up front, only makes you look inept and you end up wearing egg on your face.

Hire a PAO.  They could just save your company…

Tell me your stories.  Let me hear the good and the bad.  What happened where you might have needed a PAO?  Leave your comments, and I’ll tell you what I would have done as an expert communicator for you!


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