Focus, Honest Capability Assessment and Geography Matters: 3 Fundamentals I have learned as a Military Communication Officer

In 2018 White House Communication Director, Hope Hicks, became one more professional communicator to make headlines when she admitted to lying on behalf of her employer. Honesty is a key value that PR industry codes of ethics demand, whether it be the Arthur W. Page Society, the Public Relations Society of America or the International Association of Business Communicators. The decision whether or not to be honest may be the only clear professional choice that some communicators get to make.

Having originally trained as a journalist, I entered the public affairs field with honesty set as a core value that I will not compromise. That was an easy decision to make. But knowing what I believed in did not solve other challenges I faced as a new staff public affairs officer (PAO).

I came to my first job as a PAO with eight years of military communication experience. That technical experience did not fully prepare me for the first two years as a chief communication officer. Some of the hardest days on the job taught me valuable lessons on leadership and professional survival. If I could go back in time to advise the young captain I once was, I would tell him that the fundamentals for success as a communicator are Focus, an Honest Assessment of Capability and that Geography matters.


Focus comes down to knowing what you want to communicate and how you are going to communicate it. Most U.S. military units are engaged in a high operational tempo. Each one has a lot of people, working many moving parts to accomplish several pieces of a larger mission. Many parts of the unit believe that their stories are the most worthy of being told.

The art of communication strategy demands that the communication team instinctively sense which people and events tell a piece of the larger organizational story that will resonate. However, the science of leadership demands that the PAO knows how to build and maintain positive relationships with a broad array of stakeholders. That means that sometimes we have to say no, while looking for ways to say yes in the future.

No communication team can tell every story. Effective communication strategy must be deliberate and resist the temptation to capture and amplify every noise input. News editors and audiences will only react to the most compelling narratives. Communication officers must know how to pick out those compelling narratives, while working well with those who advocate for less salient parts of the story.

The military PAO’s best focus tools are written command priorities and communication lines of effort. The best commanders put their priorities in writing, and communicate it across the formation frequently. These priorities align competing stakeholders to drive the ship in the same direction. When a PAO can justify actions based on established command priorities, the risk of friction with other staff directors and commanders is immediately reduced. One commander I served under demonstrated this perfectly. I printed his command priorities and lines of effort and taped them to every desk in our section. My team knew that if ever in doubt, to test their ideas against that document.

In the absence of clear command priorities, build your own communication lines of effort. Put them in writing. Get them into a formalized document that is staffed through the operations section. This allows the chief communicator to give the communication team a north star to point to. If signed by the chief executive, it also gives organizational communicators a basic defense of communication strategy.

Honest Assessment of Capability

The second thing I would advise a younger me is that I owe the unit leadership and my team an Honest Assessment of Capability. Military services exist to accomplish policy objectives through force if necessary. This requires combat power and readiness. Military cultural rhetoric often equates all efforts as directly feeding into combat power. For most of my military career, public affairs was categorized among “Maneuver, Fires and Effects.” The idea was that communication transmissions result in a change of perspective among a target audience. To make the idea more conversant in combat arms culture, the communication process was likened to how an artillery shell brings a change of perspective among its target.

Though the pen be mightier than the sword, words do not equate to bullets. As communicators, we can play a role in helping to reduce risk to the commander by facilitating dialogue between the command and interested publics. This is true whether in combat, training or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

Resist the temptation to convince everyone that we directly add to combat power as communicators. Our peer industry Chief Communication Officers (CCO) do not drive sales or deliver contracts. They attempt to build and maintain public support, something that no western organization can survive without in the modern world. The Chaplain is a noncombatant. Yet the chaplaincy plays a key role in caring for troops and exerting conscience into the organization. No one would go to war without the staff judge advocate (SJA). The SJA does not charge fixed positions with the infantry. Yet commanders rely on legal counsel to keep the unit’s actions in accordance with law. PAOs sit on the personal staff, with the Chaplain and SJA for an important reason. All of us provide critical counsel to the command that ultimately reduces tactical and optical risk.

Geography Matters

The final piece of advice I would offer to a younger me is to stop hiding in the cheap seats. Among a league of leaders who were older and more experienced, I succumbed to the temptation to sit in the back row of the conference room for the first two years as a PAO. It felt safer than having my face in the “line of fire.” Over time I noticed that the officers who were taken the most seriously all had two things in common: they sat at the main table with the boss and had data points at the ready to back their recommendations. One day it clicked with me that to be perceived like them, I needed to start acting like them.

After the unit returned from deployment, I went into the conference room earlier than usual for our first meeting at home station. I took a seat at the main table. I kept the seat for the rest of that unit assignment. I came prepared with points to convey during meetings. The new officers rotating in to the unit assumed that I belonged among the court of leaders and treated me accordingly. Commanders became accustomed to seeing me among the trusted leaders. Their confidence in me inspired new confidence in myself.

Communicators, put yourself up front in the direct line of fire. Learn how to volley back against critics with data that proves you are an expert in your profession. The people who sit at the main table and know what they are talking about earn credibility and cultural authority. To earn it, you must work for it in the center ring.

These are three fundamentals that have helped me as a communication leader over the last six years. What are yours?


Copyright 2018 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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