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
"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.
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
"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
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."
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
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."
Get the latest news on the U.S. forces
Learn more about public affairs jobs
Military Reporters and Editors Association
Want to learn more about covering the troops?