Foreign Military Students Learn Public Affairs Skills
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
FORT MEADE, Md., Nov. 6, 2012 Fifteen foreign military students are hard at work writing communications plans for their countries as they learn the American approach to becoming military public affairs officers at the Defense Information School here.
Col. Philip Aguer Panyang of the South Sudanese army gets help from Grant Stolz, studio manager at the Defense Media Activity, as he prepares to participate in a television interview during the media training portion of the Defense Information School’s Public Affairs Course for International Students curriculum at Fort Meade, Md., Nov. 2, 2012. DOD photo by Marvin Lynchard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In the second class of the Public Affairs Course for International Students, military members from around the globe are learning the principles of how the U.S. military conducts public affairs programs ranging from media relations and conducting on-air interviews to writing news releases and giving public affairs advice to commanding officers. During the course, the students produce a 30-plus page communications plan to present to their commanders when they return home as they learn how to enhance the image of their military and how to release information in an accurate and timely manner.
"The course provides a commonality of instruction that’s in any international U.N. peacekeeping or humanitarian and disaster relief-driven operation in the future," military lead instructor, Navy Cmdr. John Schofield explained.
In addition to developing communications plans to take back to their countries, the students learn basic public affairs skills so they can hit the ground running with American PAOs when working side-by-side in relief operations and a multitude of other military missions, Schofield said.
"These trained [public affairs officers] essentially become force multipliers,” he said. “They go back to their home countries trained in what we think will make a successful PAO. What the Defense Department gains is having everyone on the same page. [For] the future, I believe we all understand … operations are not going to just be American, and a lot of what we do now is multinational. With PAOs on the same page, that's good for the overall [mission]."
Col. Philip Aguer Panyang of the South Sudanese army said he's gleaned vital basic professional communications skills in his first public affairs course.
"The people must know what's happening, and they have that democratic right to timely, accurate information," he said. His role is challenging, he added, because the South Sudanese have feared the media since the country’s break from North Sudan, and threats come from surrounding countries. "It's better to talk [about issues] to allay their fears," Panyang said he’s learned from the course.
He said information for South Sudan’s citizens centers on security from external forces, border issues and other infiltrators.
“We must deal with protection of the people, and sovereignty from aggressions,” he said.
Panyang said an important lesson he’s learned at DINFOS is to distance the military from oppression and propaganda. The best practices in communications are vital, he said, during the transformation of his military into a modern, conventional army, and “to interact with other countries that have the same level of understanding.”
With neither a newspaper nor social media in his army, Panyang said, he hopes to establish both and attract the professionals to get these media under way.
Unlike South Sudan, Ukraine is no stranger to social media, said 1st Lt. Iryna Yastremska, a Ukranian army journalist who scored the highest in a test in her country’s military to earn a seat in the DINFOS course.
“It is important for my country to know how to be a public affairs officer,” she said. “The course improved my English, and now I can use it in international missions.” Scofield said all the students must be able to speak English to attend the class.
Yastremska has learned a lot from her classmates, she said, from their varied experiences in communications. She calls the DINFOS class a “unique” atmosphere. “I never thought I’d have this opportunity,” she added.
When she returns to Ukraine, she said, she wants to develop a communications plan for peacekeeping initiatives. “A lot of things I didn’t know how to do before,” she said, “but I can now use my [skills] in my career.”
Social media, an area that receives a lot of emphasis in the course, is used for entertainment more than information in Ukraine, Yastremska said, adding that the use of the medium is still gaining ground. Facebook exists in Ukraine, but another social medium is much more popular among those in the former Soviet countries.
Yastremska says she gained a lot of benefits from the course. “I learned to think widely, how to respond effectively, and I believe I can train others,” she said. “DINFOS gives you all you need to be successful.”
Lt. Col. Saleh Alhlalat is a military liaison in his home country of Jordan, and he’s learning to be a public affairs officer at the DINFOS course. “This is the first time we’ve had such a good opportunity, and I’m very proud,” the Jordanian army officer said. “The [instructors] give you very professional training. They teach you how to speak, write, act and deliver information. We learned how to introduce and solve problems and learn all the techniques of being a PAO. It’s been amazing -- just incredible.”
Alhlalat said he thought it was important to learn how to work with international media. “In the Middle East, the media is very important. That’s what we learned here,” he said, followed by a smile and an American cliché: “No pain, no gain.”
He said he appreciates the help he’s received from the Americans, and he plans to stay in touch with the staff at DINFOS for support as he progresses in his public affairs career.
Continuing to network and keeping an open dialogue between students and instructors is important, Schofield said.
"I tell students, ‘Your success as a PAO is dependent on dialogue and networking -- dialogue with staff, fellow PAOs, subject-matter experts and the media. It’s key to your being successful in a network of critical staff members and people from other countries,’” he said.
The international course helps the U.S. defense mission, too, said Schofield, whose public affairs career includes being stationed on a nuclear aircraft carrier and as a Pentagon spokesman. Like other instructors, he eventually will return to a public affairs officer position. Learning in the course benefits both sides, by giving the DINFOS instructors insight into the customs, traditions and cultures of other countries, he explained, while giving the U.S. instructors insights that will prove helpful when they’re working in future partnered operations.
“If I had the opportunity to do something with [U.S.] European Command that involved the Ukraine in a naval operation on the Black Sea, I now know what social media is like in the Ukraine and what people prefer in terms of dialogue and communication there,” he noted.