Public Affairs Jobs in the Military

Want to serve your country without actually being on the front lines? The military offers lots of opportunities for arts grads with good communication skills to get involved in public affairs.

There are about 800 public information officers in the various branches of the U.S. military. And the job outlook is good.

"Opportunities are endless," says Major Kent P. Cassella. He is the U.S. Army Chief of Public Information for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

What It Involves

Public affairs (PA) personnel interpret and communicate military information and events within the forces as well as to the public.

Capt. Brian Martin is a public affairs officer for the Canadian military. He says public affairs includes research and analysis, communications advice and planning, and the delivery of information programs.

Cassella says PA officers are not that different from civilian public relations specialists. "The basic elements include media relations, community relations, command information and strategic communication planning," he says.

"We are also well versed in crisis communications and dealing with [the] accurate and timely flow of information from combat actions to the American public and the world.

"Our soldiers perform magnificently in extremely tough situations every day. They have a great story to tell. And I get to help them tell it."

Tech. Sgt. Gregory Ripps is a senior public affairs specialist for the Texas National Guard. He says duties include developing public affairs programs, serving as a liaison between the various public affairs officers and supervising the preparation, production and distribution of printed and electronic information.

PA officers can work in a wide variety of places. Many go overseas for a time.

"There are PAOs as part of every army organization, " Cassella says. "You can be stationed anywhere there are soldiers."

"While on deployment, PA people write stories about their units, provide escort and coordination with new media representatives, and publish newsletters or websites for their units, among other activities," says Ripps.

Basic Training

Specialized training is required for all public affairs jobs.

Ripps says formal training is done at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.

"The basic PA course lasts five months and PA professionals also may take additional, more specialized courses [i.e. for broadcasting, newspaper editing and photography] that vary in length. There is considerable on-the-job training, whether formal or otherwise."

Ripps also notes that it is not uncommon for personnel to wait for their formal training for as much as two years because of a lack of openings, demands from their unit or their civilian situation.

"Most army PAOs have spent at least eight years serving in a specific branch of the army before becoming a full-time PAO," says Cassella. "For example, I spent nine years as an aviation officer [helicopter pilot] before I became a full-time PAO."

The Matter of Money

As with all military jobs, compensation varies according to length of service and rank.

"Guard members are paid according to rank and time in grade -- not according to career field," says Ripps.

"Most PAOs will say the pay is adequate but does not compare to that of our civilian counterparts," says Cassella.

"But we will also tell you that we are not here for the money. This is an all-volunteer army. Everyone is here because they want to serve, want to make a difference in the world.

"The military is an extremely exciting and gratifying profession. That in itself is a huge benefit."

How to Get Started

Meeting with a military recruiter is the first step.

Ripps says U.S. recruiters have lists of units with public affairs positions available. If they interview a prospective recruit with a background or interest in PA, and there is an open or soon-to-open PA slot, then they will steer the person in that direction.

After that, a PA officer or commander will interview the person. If there is the need and the fit, then the person will be recruited into that slot within the unit.

"Army officers interested in being a PAO submit a resume packet to the Department of the Army. The Department of the Army screens all applications and chooses the most qualified applicants to enter the PAO field," Cassella says.

You must have a degree, but as Martin notes, there are a couple of ways to go about it. He says you can get your degree first and then call the recruiter. Or you can join the reserves and gain military experience and knowledge, then transfer over to the regular forces once you get your degree.

"All commissioned officers must have a bachelor's degree, regardless of their branch or military specialty. The majority of the branches of the army do not require specific degrees," says Cassella.

"For example, an infantry officer could have a degree in biology or English or any other discipline. That means the door is wide open to a diverse group of qualified applicants no matter what their degree."

Insider Advice

Brush up on your communications skills, says Ripps. "This is all part of good communication, which is the goal of good public relations. [You] should also develop good people skills and the ability to think on [your] feet."

"Focus on communications and writing classes," says Cassella. "Good PAOs must have strong communication skills, both written and verbal. Degrees in communications, journalism and public relations disciplines are considered a plus."

Wartime has a major impact on many aspects of the military, including the way some of those in the public affairs sector do their jobs.

"The concern for security and privacy become greater. While we like to provide all the information the civilian media wants, we must be mindful that too much information can be dangerous, even deadly," says Ripps.

"There are guidelines in the form of regulations and instructions, and there are PAGs [public affairs guidance] sent out from the Department of Defense, Army, Air Force and National Guard Bureau that explain or apply policy to immediate or anticipated circumstances."

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