Introducing Professional Ethics to the Army Public Affairs Program

The Army is the largest military service in the U.S. Department of Defense. The Army’s public affairs (PA) program traces its history back to Gen. Douglass McArthur. As a young officer serving overseas, he is said to have believed in the importance of communicating soldiers’ stories to the public back in the states. That directive to inform the public is still central to our reason for existing.

Today’s PAO is the military equivalent of the corporate chief communication officer (CCO). In the Army, the PAO serves as a personal staff officer to the commander. Every other staff officer works solely to achieve the commander’s intent. Only the commander’s personal staff is responsible to the command, and other stakeholders. The personal staff consists of the Chaplain, the Staff Judge Advocate, the Command Sergeant Major and the PAO. All of these personal staff members serve the commander, and advocate for various publics to the commander. It is their duty to provide an outside perspective. The functions that these staff officers perform require a deliberate adherence to a code of professional ethics. The current Army public affairs regulation and doctrine lack that code.

A team at the Army Public Affairs Center (APAC) is writing a new version of Army Regulation (AR) 360-1: The Army Public Affairs Program. The first version of AR 360-1 debuted in 2000. The current version published in 2011.

The Army is decades behind when it comes to recognizing public affairs as an ethics-based profession. AR 360-1 mentions “ethics” only 7 times. The first five instances direct PA practitioners to seek advice from ethics counselors. These counselors are attorneys. The final two times the word “ethics” appear in the regulation is in a reference appendix.

By contrast, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) adopted the first version of its code of professional ethics in 1950. The International Association of Business Communicators and Arthur W. Page Society established public relations codes of professional conduct long ago. In 2012 even the Navy wrote a professional code of ethics into its public affairs doctrine.

A lack of codified ethics is the most egregious oversite that separates Army PA experts from our industry peers. It perpetuates the stereotype of the PAO as a unit photographer, or “facebook guy.” In one instance, our lack of respect for the profession led a brigade commander to use his PA team solely for making posters to antagonize the opposing force during a training center rotation. In another, it led a senior PA writer to re-write a command information story I authored to fit within a fictional command narrative. I succeeded in killing that story. However, it never should have been an issue to begin with. These are just two examples. There are many more.

For too long, many PAOs ceded the ethical ground to military lawyers. Think about that for a moment. Public affairs is responsible for maintaining the public trust of our commanders through the accurate and timely release of information. Yet many of our peers and leaders believe that our decision-making should be subservient to a profession that had an 18% public approval rating in a 2013 Pew Center survey. Though we are responsible to coordinate across several staff sections, we ultimately answer only to the commander.

Fortunately, a panel of smart public affairs leaders, with a wide array of strategic and combat experience, are working to make the new AR 360-1 professionally relevant. The working draft of AR 360-1 includes a code of ethics informed by industry best practices and real-world military experience. It integrates active voice across the document and reinforces that communication is a command priority.

Those of us re-writing AR 360-1 know that military culture is often decades behind official regulation and doctrine. Yet we know that all journeys begin with the first step. We are taking that first step, with big dreams for the men and women who will soon take the baton of public affairs leadership across the force.

PAOs do not need legal minds or fire support officers to decide what equates to ethical communication practices. The time of farming out our base of professional ethics should rightly come to an end. Look for the new AR 360-1 in late 2019.

 

Copyright 2017 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved

 

My opinions are my own and do not reflect any official policy of the Department of the Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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