Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook
Media requirements are no longer a sporadic event that is handled only by the public affairs officer (PAO). Mass communications run 24 hours a day and need updated information. Reporters under pressure to fill that time will report anything, including rumors and speculation, in order to relieve the pressure. Commanders and staff need to learn how to “feed the beast” with your story and outlook. You can use the media to not only see the real situation, but also to pass on information that will help the public; i.e. road closures, evacuation routes, nongovernmental organization (NGO) support sites, requests for support, etc. In a crisis, the commander is the person to be out front, not the PAO. The PAO can prepare the commander for the interviews and news conferences, but the commander needs to be the face and voice in front of the cameras and behind the microphone.
- Access to your operations. Commanders will have to decide how much to involve the media in the operation. Giving a reporter free run of a tactical operations center (TOC) may seem extreme but may be a viable course of action depending on the situation. Some commanders have opted to travel with reporters so they could get first-hand information and simultaneously see that the message is not changing with the audience. Prepared press releases provided to a pool of journalists with no direct access to a commander will be viewed as an attempt to whitewash facts and put a positive spin on a bad situation, regardless of the validity of the press release.
- Terminology and media relations. Words have power, as well as different meanings to different people. Military terminology must be “translated” so that civilians can understand the message presented. For example, the word “intelligence” has specific meanings to the military that will be misconstrued by a suspicious populace concerned with maintaining their civil rights. Collection of intelligence by the military on citizens is illegal. Some military leaders have chosen to substitute the word “information” for “intelligence” to clarify their activities with the media.
- Importance of the PAO. The PAO is instrumental to mission accomplishment in disaster relief operations. As such, this position must be manned with a trained leader, staffed with experienced noncommissioned officer (NCOs) and supported with transportation and communications assets.
Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)
All commanders will designate a spokesperson to release information pertaining to their command. Some units are authorized public affairs (PA) modification tables of organization and equipment (MTOE) positions and those that are not authorized these positions have to appoint a PAO as an additional duty. MTOE PA positions that are not resourced when the deployment warning order is received should be identified and filled through cross-leveling before deploying.
As apart of a joint task force (JTF) performing civil support, the military PA activities are subject to approval of the lead federal agency (LFA).
- PAOs operate in an interagency environment, with emphasis on cooperation, coordination, and unity of effort.
- The LFA has release authority, and unit PAOs must coordinate all PA activities with the LFA and comply with its PA guidance.
Natural disasters are intensely covered by the media.
- Conduct a pre-deployment media briefing to unit members both assigned and attached. The main points of the briefing should include:
- Every Soldier is a representative of the US Army.
- Operations security (OPSEC). Even though you are on a domestic, disaster relief mission, the unit and its members could still be object of collection actions by an adversary.
- State their mission. Give a clear concise statement as to what they are going to do, why they are there.
- Talk to the media in a positive manner.
- You do not have to answer every question, but do not say “no comment.”
- Express the importance of the missions, your commitment and mission successes.
- Do not speculate. If you do not know the answer to a question, say so.
- Stay in your lane. Discuss only those items that pertain to your particular area of expertise.
Commanders should use their PAOs to keep both the Soldiers and their families informed of the units’ missions and accomplishments.
Combat camera teams are good to have, but their main purpose is historical documentation, not public affairs. Commanders and PAOs at all levels should attempt to have personnel trained in the use of the Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS). The DVIDS links media to deployed units; maintains a searchable archive of video, photo, and print products; and provides an additional link for the Soldiers with their families.
If your unit is the senior U.S. Army unit or is designated as the JTF headquarters request a public affairs detachment (PAD to coordinate your PA.
PADs are trained in:
- Producing news items for both print and broadcast.
- Managing and accrediting civilian media.
- Setting up and moderating a press conference.
Tips when being interviewed:
- Talk to the interviewer, not the camera.
- Be relaxed, confident, and professional.
- Be aware than some military terms may have very different meanings to civilians
- Avoid acronyms or profanity.
- Do not argue with the reporter. Be firm and polite and do not get emotional.
- Deal in facts. Avoid speculation and hypothetical questions, discuss areas you have knowledge of, it is all right to say “I do not know.”
- The commander’s packing list should include makeup matching his skin tone. Applying the makeup before an interview will keep him from sweating under hot camera lights and he will come across as more confident on the television.
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