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The Elected Officer’s Role in Public Affairs
The bottom line is that “public affairs” is an elected officer’s task. Today and in the future, media will be wherever we are, and those same media will be the link with the American people.

Introduction

Elected officers (EO) are accustomed to taking on leadership roles. He/she is expected to provide leadership to maintain and improve the unit, develop and supervise projects, and manage a myriad of associated tasks.

One function of leadership lies in the area of public affairs. Much of what an EO learns about public affairs comes from on-the-job training with the public affairs officer (PAO). Additionally, much of what the EO learns about dealing with media comes from perceptions, or misperceptions, accumulated from years of watching television or reading newspapers.

The purpose of this article is to give elected officers a description of what to do to personally affect positive public affairs programs, what to expect from public affairs officers, and to detail the needs of media. It is important for the EO to recognize the public affairs program belongs to him/her. He/she is ultimately the most credible and knowledgeable center for information about the unit. Of course, as with all staff functions, he relies on the expertise provided by others to supervise and improve the public affairs program. It is useful to understand how to determine the relative abilities of PAO. Finally, understanding the roles and needs of media is also important in developing an effective public affairs program. The media and its wide and varied formats provides the conduit to the America people and, in many instances, our leaders. Knowing the institution is imperative.

The EO’s Role

EO’s should visit with local newspaper editors and television and radio station managers shortly after being elected. "Determine who the dominant personality in the business is. You cannot be guided by titles. There are more titles than offices in the newspaper industry. The same can be said for the various forms of electronic media including television, radio, and on-line services.

No one is more important in telling the Auxiliary’s story than the EO. By visiting the key media, the new EO can eliminate barriers with editors and publishers. The EO will not be a faceless "government official," but instead he will become a person local personalities feel is interested in their community.

The EO should consider conducting the following public affairs activities early in his/her term:

• Invite key media people to a meeting or a patrol. "Whatever you do, make him feel he always will be welcome and that you will endeavor to help him in any way possible."

• Provide a short (a minute or less) taped "hello" speech for local radio stations. Provide a comparable video product for television outlets. Write an editorial for the local paper briefly listing your goals and objectives for the flotilla/division/district.

• Attend routine community relations meetings, such as business-military affairs committee assemblies in the local area, and get to know key figures.

Command messages are central points to be made when encountering media. Although command messages are usually related to a certain situation, the EO must begin early in considering what messages he/she wants the public to understand. While it is clear media ultimately decides what to publish or broadcast, it is equally important to know that what he/she relates to media, either personally or through a PAO, is very likely to be in final published or broadcast products. It is critical that the EO articulates key points (usually three to five main points with supporting information) to the PAO as the PAO plans for media relations.

The Functions of the Public Affairs Officer

The PAO is the key staff officer responsible for providing information to the public for the unit. As a practical matter, for most issues the PAO is the EO spokesman and, as such, must be well prepared for the position. There are several aspects to being a PAO that a new EO can quickly use to assess the level of capabilities of his PAO.
• The PAO should be thoroughly familiar with all facets of the flotilla/division/district as ell as neighboring units. The PAO should be able to give a full briefing that relates your unit’s missions, capabilities, training methods, facilities, on-going projects, historical summary, and philosophy.
• The PAO must understand the Coast Guard Public Affairs Manual, theAuxiliary PA Gudie, and the Auxiliary Manual as well as National, District, Division, and Flotilla directives.
• Determine if the PAO’s standard operating procedures (SOP) adequately cover the spectrum of public affairs to include media relations, community relations, and command information. SOPs should cover procedures for the release of information, a community relations event plan, and contacts related to production of command information items.
• Task the PAO to give you examples of articles appearing in the local paper for the last six months. Do the articles cover the unit’s missions well?
• Has the PAO completed AUX-12. Has the PAO qualified as a PA1, 2, or 3?
• Determine the status of the speaker’s bureau. Are speakers regularly used at local events?
• Ascertain from the PAO any special projects or efforts to interest media in the unit. Does the PAO regularly send information to new media outlets? Is there a clear plan to attract different media sources?
.• Ask the PAO about the PA representative at levels. Is public affairs guidance (PAG) given on a routine basis for Coast Guard-wide activities? What are the requirements for clearance of PA events beyond regulatory guidelines? Who are the PAO at the higher levels?

It is vital to articulate that the function of the PAO is important to the unit’s ability to accomplish its mission. By ensuring the PAO’s ability to accomplish his myriad of tasks, the EO will gain full credibility with the community and media and enhance the stature of the Auxiliary and Coast Guard.

Understanding Media

Media are diverse serving a vast array of outlets. Most publishers and broadcasters impose high standards of ethical conduct and want only truth in print or airing. It is useful to separate trashy tabloids, aimed at sensation from major dailies who aggressively seek accurate stories. Tabloids rely on rumor, eavesdropping, questionable informants, and, on some occasions, outright fabrication to sell papers.
Major dailies and networks, conversely, depend on reliable sources, a check or confirmation of the sources, official records, and independent experts for stories. When using so-called "reliable but anonymous" sources, the credibility of the company is on the line -- not something the major outlets view lightly.

But, one may ask, is it not important for the major outlets to also sell ad space or airtime? The answer is yes, of course, which is why reporters are so assertive in gathering information. More often that not, two primary factors lead to the holding of the media in low esteem:

(1) A personal dislike of article content. For example, a straight news article covering the resignation of a favorite politician will often be viewed as negative or slanted reporting by loyal followers, or

(2) A lack of understanding of what journalists consider to be news. Most news outlets use the following elements to determine newsworthiness: Immediacy, proximity, consequence, conflict, oddity, sex appeal, emotion, prominence, suspense, and progress. The more factors present, the more likely the story will run. Using these elements, one can understand why the O.J. Simpson trial captivated the media (and the public). The trial was live (IMMEDIATE). Simpson (a PROMINENT athlete), was on trial for his life (CONSEQUENCE, SUSPENSE, CONFLICT). One could also say the case was unusual because of the stature of Simpson (ODDITY). Many will dispute the true "newsworthiness" of such a trial, but the massive numbers of daily viewers demonstrated why news organizations cover particular events with such vigor.

In their eagerness to cover stories, journalists sometimes make mistakes. Many mistakes are often the result of incomplete information or preliminary findings which, upon analysis, do not square with the facts. It is up to EO’s and public affairs officers to educate members of the media while addressing their needs in the appropriate format.

Conclusion

Public affairs operations will continue to have a significant role in the overall conduct of Auxiliary activities. Public Affairs is an EO’s program and requires the personal attention of the EO. On a day-to-day basis, the commander relies on his principle staff officer for public affairs, the PAO. The PAO must demonstrate competencies across the spectrum of public affairs including media relations, community relations, and unit information. To be effective, he will need to exercise diligence and innovation to tell his unit’s and the Coast Guard’s story. Finally, both the EO and PAO must understand the needs of the media. Media has wide interests. EO’s and PAOs can ensure the needs of media and the Coast Guard are met by providing accurate, timely, and useful information.

Leader’s Media Tips


• Think clearly about what may be printed or aired the next day. Although some in media are loose with contextual use of quotes, rarely do the more established outlets use outright fabrication.

• Speak about what you know. If you don’t know the answer, simply say "I don’t know." That answer rarely appears in print.

• Inject command messages. In addition to answering completely and honestly, if you have a reservoir of command message facts, use them. (The underlying theme here is: the interviewer chooses the questions -- you choose the answer.)

• Questions won’t be there. Just as with electronic media, questions will not appear in the article. Don’t worry about tailoring your answer for the interviewer’s benefit.

• Think first. Stop and think before answering. Correct answers are more important than deadlines.

• Negative Backflow. If the interviewer uses a negative catch-phrase, such as "sex scandal," do NOT use the word or phrase as part of your answer. Example: "What are you doing about the Coast Guard’s sex scandal?" Bad answer: "The sex scandal investigations are ongoing." Better answer: "We are committed to investigating this matter and will take appropriate actions as necessary."

• Everything counts. Don’t forget: YOU ARE ON THE RECORD. Your conversation may be friendly but this is a business meeting -- stick to business.

• Consistency. Just as you will use and reuse common themes, the interviewers often ask the same questions in different ways -- stay consistent.

• Know the question. If you don’t understand the question, make the interviewer rephrase. Know the question you are answering.

• "No Comment" looks like you are hiding something. DO NOT say "no comment." If necessary, defer to the escorting PAO. PAOs can often assist in providing background materials.

• Stay in your lane. If you are not the Secretary of Homeland Security or the designated spokesman, steer clear of answering for the Secretary. Talk about your area of expertise. If you did it or you are responsible for it, you can talk about it.