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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 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 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 have 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 me 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 shortcuts 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 reality 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.

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