The course I am taking at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) used to be the basic journalism course. It is now the basic public affairs course. During the first two weeks we spend half of each day learning how to write as journalists do and the other half learning public affairs.
In the 70s when I did this job, we really thought of ourselves as journalists, but now it is very clear we learn to write as journalists do, but our job is public relations.
Yesterday during the PR class, we had guest observers, an Air Force husband and wife team who were assigned together as public relations sergeants. When asked to say a few words, they told several stories, finishing stories the other started and full of enthusiasm. The longest story they told was about how they handled the security shut-down at their base after Osama Bin Laden was killed.
Their job was to be sure none of the journalists swarming the gate connected the vastly increased base security with the death of the Al Qaeda leader. The two sergeants were gleeful explaining how they managed to speak to the press about the increased security while giving them no quote that would link the increased security with the recent demise of Bin Laden.
In the class itself, the instructor said we should never lie to the media: our credibility is everything. He reminded us that the DINFOS motto is: Strength though Truth. But in the real world, media relations is a game in which the journalists need access and the public affairs staff controls access. So in awkward situations the public affairs pro is tying herself in knots trying to tell as much truth as possible while the journalist is staying with the rules of his profession and attributing all facts.
The Air Force team won the Bin Laden round of the game and were very happy. Thirty-five years ago, military journalists were sometimes confused about their role--thinking they were journalists first and public affairs second.
The message is very clear now. We are learning to be public affairs professionals who can write in journalistic style.