FORT BUCHANAN, Puerto Rico –
The role of a Public Affairs Officer (PAO) is not always fully understood in the Army. Some people think that, if a PAO is not carrying a camera around, he or she is not doing his or her job. Others believe that PAO’s duties are just to update the command’s social media platforms. Both notions are not accurate.
The emergency created by Category 4 Hurricane Maria in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, allowed PAOs to truly demonstrate the value they add to the mission, especially to the Army Reserve 1st Mission Support Command, headquartered in Fort Buchanan.
Since the 1st MSC is the largest federal U.S. Army command in the Caribbean region, Army Reserve Soldiers were among the first responders after the hurricane, as part of a Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) mission.
“Our Soldiers were already here when the winds of hurricane Maria hit our shores. Our Soldiers are the sons and daughters of Puerto Rico and have been members of this community for the past 95 years,” said Brig. Gen. Dustin A. Shultz, 1st MSC commanding general, while reflecting about how America’s Army Reserve is responding to this historic emergency.
In Puerto Rico, DSCA operations started shortly after hurricane Maria hit the island, through the Presidential declaration of emergency. This action allowed local U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers to directly serve the people of Puerto Rico by purifying and distributing more than 600,000 gallons of potable water, delivering millions of bottles of water, millions of individual meals, providing patient care to thousands of citizens, providing communication support to hospitals, delivering hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel to hospitals, and clearing hundreds of miles of roads for supply routes.
As expected, activities related to the emergency response in the U.S. territory drew massive local, national and international media interest, requiring the 1st MSC PAOs, properly augmented by the U.S. Army Reserve Command, to actively engage the media and show how the U.S. Army Reserve forces in Puerto Rico were supporting the federal emergency response.
“A Public Affairs Officer plays a critical role in Defense Support of Civil Authorities missions. Through the PAO efforts, the command delivers key command messages to the population and allows a successful operation under challenging disaster conditions, without the distractions of misperceived operations,” said Shultz.
To do this, the assigned PAOs were required, not only to understand the Spanish language, but also to quickly understand the unique characteristics of the local information environment, to include the complicated local political atmosphere.
“A PAO must understand the local audiences and the different elements that affect the local public information landscape. Only understanding that aspect, the PAO will be able to develop narratives that resonate with the audiences,” added Shultz, who is the senior federal Army officer in the region.
As part of this emergency response mission, the Army Reserve PAOs also had to coordinate synchronized messages in concert with the Joint Force Land Component Commander (JFLCC) PAOs, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) External Affairs Officers, to properly communicate a message that included Army Reserve narratives, as part of a total recovery effort.
“One of the most important skills of a PAO during a disaster scenario is the ability to establish and sustain a proactive dialogue with the mass media outlets, ensuring the audiences truly understand the role of the Army Reserve forces during the emergency and reinforcing the trust and confidence of the local communities, ” stated Shultz.
The active PAO posture support the Army Reserve provided on the ground was critical during the shaping, engagement and transition phases of the emergency response operations.
For example, since the Army Reserve is prepositioned in the region, the PAOs played a fundamental role in coordinating access to radio stations across the island, hours after the hurricane, which allowed the Commanding General to deliver important information to all the Soldiers in a critical moment.
During this phase, Army Reserve PAOs also managed expectations regarding the Army Reserve’s response among the different audiences. PAO activities also included developing themes and messages that clearly explained the scope and timing of the Army Reserve response.
Later in the engagement phase, once Army Reserve Soldiers were mobilized and started helping communities, PAOs traveled around the island, actively facilitating media coverage to remote sites and conducting press conferences, in coordination with the Governor’s office and FEMA officials. Explaining the difference between the National Guard and the Army Reserve was critical during that phase.
Finally, PAOs also played a significant role during the transition phase, explaining how the Army Reserve coordinated with the National Guard to continue the operations, as conditions on the ground continue to improve.
There is no doubt that Army Reserve PAOs played an important role during the emergency generated by hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The unconventional disaster scenario created a unique opportunity for PAOs to facilitate a common understanding, support and posture of America’s Army Reserve that will change the way we communicate the relevancy of the Army Reserve for the best interest of our Nation and its people.