Flash Communications

Tales from a student-PR agency at Kent State University

Military public affairs vs. civilian public relations: What’s the difference?

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Senior Public Relations Major Megan Tomkins shares her experiences with military public affairs

Hello, my name is Staff Sgt. Megan Tomkins, and I have been an Air Force Reserve public affairs (PA) specialist for four years. Oh, and I am also a senior public relations (PR) student at Kent State University. As I’ve gone through the Kent State program, I have had the opportunity to integrate what I’ve learned through the military into what was being taught to me in my classes. I’ve often gotten asked what the differences and similarities are between military public affairs and civilian public relations. In all honesty, they are more similar than different.  I can point out a few key differences are so you can better understand why PA specialist do things the way they do.

First of all, our initial training for the career field is three months long at the Defense Information School, Ft. Meade, Md. It basically gives all PA specialists a crash course in PR, teaching us to be journalists and photographers. There are several other specific career fields taught there as well, but mine was the Basic Public Affairs-Writer Course. After graduating from this school, which is an accredited school, we are sent to where we are stationed. In the Air Force, PA specialist education does not stop there. We have what is called on-the-job training and upgrade training where we continue to learn our career field and more specialized areas of expertise.

Just like any PR career field, you start out at the bottom with limited responsibilities. You begin with writing stories, taking photos and laying out your base publication and a few years later you are organizing the community and media relations programs. Eventually you become a supervisor and are teaching and leading other young troops.

One of the biggest differences when I first started out four years ago was that social media was not as important as it is now. The military initially was slow to accept using social media to distribute news and information to the public. As the social media phenomenon increased, the military realized its need to jump on board. I am now part of social media management for my base which includes updating the Facebook page and uploading stories and photos to our website through the use of the Air Force Public Information Management System (AFPIMS).

Just as PR professionals are guided by certain ethics and need to adhere to specific ways of writing, so are military PA specialists. We use the Associated Press Stylebook just like everyone else, but we are also guided by other documents. In the Air Force, we follow several Department of Defense directives and Air Force specific policies.  Some include: Air Force Instruction 35-101, Directive-Type Memorandum 09-026 and Air Force Document 120327-048.

Lastly, yes, we also can deploy. Civilians can as well. But that’s a whole other story for another time.

So there you go, the main differences of military PA vs. civilian PR. Feel free to post any other questions you may have and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability!

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Author: LukeArmour

Luke Armour is the Coordinator of Flash Communications, managing this bright student intern PR agency housed in Kent's University Communications & Marketing. He's also an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University.

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