WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Defense Department is facing a once-in-a-generation change, and its public affairs practitioners around the world need to communicate that change clearly, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman said today.
George Little, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, spoke to commissioned, enlisted, civilian and contract employee defense public affairs professionals gathered at the Defense Media Activity’s headquarters on Fort Meade in Maryland. Little’s remarks also were webcast.
“Public affairs is an absolutely critical component of our military and our department,” he said. “We operate in a world so tightly connected that every world event, big or small, can be felt in real time.”
Little noted that thanks to the Internet, social media and smartphones, the walls between citizens, journalists and the military have never been thinner. He challenged his audience to consider three factors that argue for a new approach to public affairs:
- Changes brought about by war and the media’s evolution;
- An expanding toolbar of essential skills for public affairs professionals; and
- Military and civilian defense leaders’ responsibility for effective communication.
Little pointed out that the widespread embedding of reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan forged close bonds between military members and the Fourth Estate. As deployments wind down and the services return to a more garrison-centered public affairs environment, he said, “we must look for new ways to enhance these bonds.”
Little said new approaches should include engaging more with nontraditional journalists such as bloggers and tweeters, who sometimes break news but also may report gossip and rumor.
“We must be constantly listening for new voices on defense issues,” he said, “and develop those relationships as well. … We must engage with anyone and everyone who is interested in what the department is doing. … In order to effectively communicate our message, we must be communicating across all platforms, new and old. By creating richer, more interesting content, we can create a deeper connection with the American public, and nourish the growing news appetite, on our terms.”
Little said DOD’s public affairs professionals have done a stellar job over the past 12 years. In the face of new challenges, he added, they must push themselves to be even better, both in their individual skills and in collaborating as a community.
“We must all think creatively on how best to communicate with the American people. … We must be ready to experiment with new and less expensive ways to connect with the nation,” he said.
In any medium, he added, public affairs professionals must be effective communicators.
“Leave the jargon and acronyms to the planners and operators. … We must communicate with the American public in crisp and memorable lines that deliver a clear and accurate message,” he said.
He urged each member of the workforce he leads to “truly become a student of writing and media.”
Those who excel in the profession, Little said, “are hungry for information. They are always reading articles, journals, fiction, [and] even reading The Duffle Blog and watching ‘The Daily Show.’”
The better that public affairs practitioners understand the media business — “not just the military media business” — the better they will be at their jobs and the more successful they will be in communicating with the American people, Little said.
Intellectual curiosity, added to professionalism and craft, provides a basis for sound work in a career that requires an inside-out knowledge of issues, he noted.
Little said some public affairs professionals may think their job largely is simply to link reporters with experts. He disagrees with that notion.
“It’s important for us … to gain a firm grounding in the substance,” Little said. “You must all aim to be experts of your beat, whether it’s the aircraft carrier you’re stationed on, the [forward operating base] where you’re deployed, or the issue that you’re covering in my press ops office.”
Little advised his audience to strive to know more than the reporter who’s asking the questions.
“You must always be willing to be the spokesperson, and to shape the story yourself,” he said. “Part of the job in public affairs is to provide context — [to] help the public understand what we are doing, and why we are doing it, and how it fits into our larger strategy. … Expanding our reach is meaningless if we are not explaining our issues in a clear way, and in terms the public can understand.”
Since they are a strategic resource for their commanders and senior civilian leaders, Little said, public affairs officers must maintain a close and trusted position, “helping your leadership navigate a complex media landscape and an equally complex set of issues surrounding national security.”
Little said commanders must be open and honest with the media. The department can’t hide bad news stories, he noted.
“When bad things happen, the American people should hear it from us, not as a scoop on the Drudge Report,” he said.
This requires all commanders to be open and honest with the press and to rely on their public affairs officer’s strategic advice in developing communication strategies, Little said. Commanders also bear some responsibility for community outreach, he added, calling military-civilian interaction a key component of long-term public affairs planning.
“No matter what the issue — veterans or the budget, personnel or weapons systems — we must engage the public through all channels, … not only with the press, but also with community leaders and stakeholders, to deliver our message as many ways as possible,” he said.
While public affairs work will become more difficult as the department grapples with funding issues and conflicting priorities, he said, the public affairs community has a duty to provide Americans with clear, accurate and timely information.
“We are going to have to be a steady hand at the helm through some rough waters,” Little said. “I’m confident we can rise to meet this challenge. With the support of military and civilian leadership, I know we can play a critical role in delivering the department’s message to the American people. That, after all, is our mission.”