While I’m removed from the world of military public affairs for now I’m fortunate to have a job that keeps me connected to defense industry news. I’ve watched with little surprise as former ‘bloggers’ have advanced to positions of prominence with major news outlets. The latest announcement, Noah Shachtman as executive editor for news at Foreign Policy. This one hits close to home for two reasons – I love and respect Foreign Policy. It’s a meaty publication with a rich history. I also worked with Noah in my position as ‘blog wrangler‘ for the U.S. Army.
When I worked with Noah he was the editor of Wired’com’s ‘Danger Room’ a very well-respected military blog with very legitimate ‘hard news’ ties of its own. But because it was an ‘online publication,’ many in the public affairs community were unaware of what to do with it (the Department of Defense public affairs shop was not among the confused – they were reaching out to online media before I ever stepped foot in the Pentagon).
My relationship with Noah was similar to what it was with every other online blogger – I tried to reach out with useful information, poorly proofread press releases and media ops with high-ranking military brass and obscure Army scientists. The key was that I invested a lot of time reading, researching, and to the best of my ability building relationships. (In those relationships, I was like the geeky band student reaching out desperately to the cool kids – if you’re a government PR maven who has never felt this way, please call me with your strategy).
Back then, online publications (blogs) were considered a separate entity than the ‘traditional’ media. They may get access, they may not. But either way it took a heck of a lot more work on their part. That was then. Today, they’re taking over ‘traditional’ publications who are more digital, dynamic and online than ever.
I told you so.
I’ve gotten a lot more credit than I deserve for getting the Army to ’embrace’ social media. When I started in military public affairs I was a Department of Army intern. But fortunately the current Secretary of the Army was highly interested in telling the U.S. Army story online, and the current Chief of Army Public Affairs was also very engaged. I also benefited from good timing. I pitched an opportunity for the newly incoming Chief to speak to a conference of milbloggers, and it turned out to be his first ‘official’ appearance. It set the tone for several years of very proactive engagement and outreach, much of it directed at educating military leadership at the brigade, battalion, and general officer level. Again, none of this was my initiative, but I was fortunate to be the the bullhorn that shouted the reality that online publications would be the publications we will be pitching in the years to come. Make nice with bloggers now – they’re the editors of the future.
The problem with most government PR jobs is a lack of continuity. I miss working in the tight-knit world of Army Public Affairs. The problem with government today is that it struggles to retain young talent – many of those I knew from the Department of Army intern program have moved on (others have stayed – kudos to them). But it would be fun to be operating in media relations today, seeing the shift in media outreach, as the line between online and offline has merged. My guess is there are quite a few ‘bloggers’ who have no trouble getting public affairs officers to take their calls.
Like many people I spent a part of my Sunday, September 11, 2011, watching the hours of media coverage, tributes and specials commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Unfortunately, as someone who communicates and “messages” for a living I can’t help but watch many interviews and see the strategic message. When any public figure communicates – whether they’re the President, a member of congress or a member of their local school board, they generally have some strategic message they’re looking to get across when speaking with the media (if they don’t they need to hire a public affairs officer or join the Toastmasters).
When it comes to my formal “military” public affairs training, there was one thing us Defense Information School students learned from the gate – if tragedy happens, it’s best not to equate a loss of life with anything else. You’re never better off for someone’s death, even if that death happened for a worthy cause. It’s insensitive to the families of the fallen and it will almost always come across worse than you intended it. There’s no “but” attached at the end of a tragedy. It’s a tragedy.
But just as you can never replace a lost life or fill the void that’s left, you also can’t forget what happened. Magnified on a national scale, it’s ridiculous to think that we could just forget the events of 9/11 (anyone who remembered what air travel, or Washington, D.C. itself, was like before September 11, 2001 can tell you that). Our nation was forever changed. An entire generation of Americans was called to service in a way we haven’t seen since America’s Greatest Generation. (And no, they’re not participating in mentorship programs or planting trees right now, they’re serving in the U.S. military).
So I’m going to go ahead and admit that much of the “messaging” I saw from folks across Washington, D.C. yesterday got to me. Talking about America’s “continuity” and the strength of its “diversity” is not what I wanted to hear. Diversity has always been a strength of our nation, but when it comes to times of national tragedy I’ll argue it isn’t our diversity that gets us through, it’s our unity. In times of crisis at home or in war it’s unity of effort, unity of purpose and the strength of our conviction that propels us forward. There is a time and a place to talk about the strength of America’s diversity. 9/11 isn’t that time. I also believe there is a time and a place to talk about America’s committment to service and community works. 9/11 isn’t that time. It’s a time to remember, a time to honor patriots and think of those who’s lives were lost.
There are daily threats to our country; there is an entire movement committed to seeing an end to our American way of life. I put my faith first and foremost in God, but I also believe in this country – in the strength of democracy and the importance of free people. I believe America can be great again. I think we owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 to make America great again, and I pray that in my lifetime I’ll see leadership in Washington, D.C. and a committment from the American people to make it happen.