February 20, 2016 –
FORT POLK, La. - Army Reserve public affairs has a new gauntlet to test its skills.
The first rotation of public affairs officers, print journalists and videographers in Exercise News Day hit the field this week at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, to show their ability to tell the U.S. Army Reserve story.
It is a culminating event for a unique military occupational specialty group: An exercise practicing public affairs skills by covering Soldiers engaged in their own separate exercise.
“The goal for Exercise News Day is to provide all Army Reserve public affairs practitioners with an opportunity to sharpen their skills and practice their craft in a real-world environment, while simultaneously providing coverage of 90 percent of the Army Reserve exercises,” said Lt. Col. Monica Womack, USARC deputy chief of Training and Readiness-West.
For the next six months, Exercise News Day will have six rotations of Army Reserve public affairs elements. Fourteen units - consisting of 225 Army Reserve Soldiers - will be tested in expeditionary conditions across the continental United States.
Forward deploying from the END headquarters at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, Indiana, the unit photographer and videographer teams will proceed to live training events to create multimedia products.
The first rotation included 204th Public Affairs Detachment, from Orlando, Florida, and the 343rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, located at Camp Parks, Arkansas. Twelve Soldiers from those units spent five days at the Joint Readiness Training Center Fort Polk, Louisiana, to cover Army Reserve support operations during a combat field exercise.
That meant a fast-paced learning curve for the two units' print journalists and videographers to get on the ground and embed to get coverage, while also meeting hard deadlines for releasing the story to the world.
“The intent is to create a real-world environment and inject the Soldiers into the 24-hour news cycle,” Womack said.
A key part of END, Womack said, is showing the world the Army Reserve interoperability with its active Army components and other military branches.
“JRTC presented a unique opportunity for the Army Reserve to demonstrate the partnership with the active component, while telling the Army Reserve story and also generating awareness about the opportunities available by utilizing active component exercise,” she said.
The public affairs journalists were challenged to generate their own sources and stories on a quick deadline.
Sgt. Jon Fernandez, of Apex, North Carolina, said finding the story was a huge hurdle initially. In one story, he was asked to flesh out how the Army Reserve was providing food and logistics for Soldiers in the field. It meant digging for good photos and interviews.
“It definitely forces me to think critically, because there is often not a set story - there is nothing set in stone - so I have to craft the story within the parameters provided and I don’t do that often,” said Fernandez, a 46Q print journalist with the 204th Public Affairs Detachment.
Video teams also found the events challenging. Sometimes stories, like Soldiers working at a fuel point or refugees being evacuated from a plane, might only have action for a brief time each day, so the journalists have to be ready and capable to get the right shots the first time.
“I think in an environment like this, I try to stick with the basics,” said Sgt. Jessica Forester, a 204th PAD videographer from LaFayette, Georgia. “Having not produced many products on the fly - this being my first unit that requires me to go out and execute my job in a real-world capacity - I try to knock out my interviews and not get too artsy with things, because sometimes it is about trying to get the story out.”
Fast deadlines also require solid planning.
Officers at the event are challenged to oversee products and create a communications plan for the overall coverage. Managing social media, facilitating media operations and marketing public affairs products are all measured tasks at the officer level.
Capt. Jill O’Dell, of Minneapolis, is the executive officer for the 343rd MPAD and the commander on the ground for the unit at END.
She says having a “set mission” for her team allows her to see the full unit’s abilities at one time - a rarity in the public affairs realm, where units often only send out two-man teams to cover an operation.
“As an officer and leadership, it is nice to really use this opportunity to practice public affairs planning and execution with a focus on the Army Reserve, which isn’t always consistently what we do when we are augmenting people throughout the year,” O’Dell said.
Ultimately, Exercise News Day prepares units with real training for future deployments and support missions in the United States.
Two-combat tour veteran, Sgt. Elizabeth Raney, a print journalist with the 343rd Public Affairs Detachment from Versailles, Missouri, likes the specialized nature of the new culminating event.
“As public affairs, we don’t get a lot of specialized training,” Raney said. “That boots on ground, go out there and go, fix it later (mentality), we don’t get a lot of that. We don’t get things like that. So this can really be a great opportunity.”