A Military Sentinel in Flight

I began my career as a communications professional in 2003 when I was working full-time with the Army Reserves.  One day, I was given the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) job as a secondary duty.  Since I was already quite busy with my main job and didn’t know anything about Public Affairs, let’s just say that I was less than delighted with this sudden career development.  But I did it anyway and soon found to my surprise that I was good at it and actually enjoyed it. Funny how life works, eh?In 2008, I began working at CFB Edmonton as a DND civilian employee as the editor of The Western Sentinel military newspaper.  Now I wear a suit and tie instead of a uniform.  The Sentinel is an internal newspaper which is published every two weeks and relies on articles and photos from Canadian Forces members who serve in western Canada.  The job also allows me to occasionally get out of the office and cover various events on the base and in Edmonton. 

When one of the Army PAOs went to Afghanistan in 2009, I stepped up to the plate to cover his job.  So now I’m a newspaper editor and public relations practitioner. That was three years ago, and I continue to love what I do. 

A typical day involves fitness training every morning followed by going to the office and staring at a computer screen.  Sometimes talking on the phone.  Sorry it doesn’t sound very glamorous, but that’s what happens.  Typically I will action priority emails and then review the Internet news aggregators for recently posted stories about the Department of National Defense or the Canadian Forces.  After those three morning rituals (fitness, emails, news) things can be quite unpredictable, and that’s what I enjoy about this work. 

On quiet days, I’m in the office editing articles submitted by military members who want their stories published in The Western Sentinel.  Other days I may find myself covering an event at CFB Edmonton, or meeting troops at the airport, or conducting media awareness training or interviewing someone for an article that I’m going to write. 

Sometimes I travel across Alberta or western Canada to help tell an Army story, and I’ve also been embedded news media on large-scale training activities involving thousands of troops.  Busy days at the office are like paddling a canoe through whitewater rapids on the Kananaskis River.

I’ve found the best way to get through those hectic, stressful times is to focus on just one thing at a time and be nice to people.  Especially if they’re having a bad day.

I choose the PR program at MacEwan? Because it was highly recommended by an associate at the Alberta Government Public Affairs Bureau.  That was in 2007.  She told me it was considered the industry standard because graduates from the MacEwan PR course had the most credibility from what they learned about real-world skills taught by current PR practitioners, and not well-intentioned professors trying to teach from a textbook. 

My experience at MacEwan was very positive!  Since I was already employed in a full-time job, I attended evening classes for two years (2008 to 2010), did the practicum at work and convocated at the Winspear Centre.  The instructors were terrific — they knew what they were talking about based on their own experiences, and I found them quite approachable.  I also enjoyed learning with the other part-time students, probably because we had a lot in common…. life experience, people skills and work ethic.  Those are things you can’t learn in a classroom, so we formed a kind of camaraderie and helped each other through challenging group assignments or studying for an exam.  

I really appreciated learning about social media and digital publishing on the latest computer technology at MacEwan.  To be quite honest, the digital media classes taught me that sometimes it’s better to give complex technical projects to talented specialists! 

There’s a variety of principles that I learned at the MacEwan PR course that I continue to apply to this day.  First and foremost is always:  who is your audience?  As a PR practitioner, you must know your publics.  If you fail to clearly identify them and what they want, then your written products are nothing more than an elaborate typing exercise.  You must know who you’re trying to reach and imagine they are sitting beside you when preparing anything ranging from a media advisory, news release, photo caption, brochure, and communications plan, whatever. 

 Next is the “RACE” formula – Research, Analyze, Communicate and Evaluate.  Those are the four basic phases in any communications approach, and you ignore them at your peril.  But don’t worry; by the time you graduate from the PR course, they will become habit and a natural way of doing business. 

And finally, specialize.  One of the things I really got from the PR course was there’s so many opportunities out there in the communications field that you can suffer from having too many choices.  Career option overload, you know?  So for me, the course helped to identify those things which I found boring or wasn’t particularly good at, so I could instead focus on my strengths and play to them.  For example, some folks love research yet dread being around people.  A few enjoy technology and hate writing.  Others are in bliss when they’re planning an event, but are shy about doing media interviews.  And so on.  The point is that the course enables students to experiment with real-world scenarios so they don’t waste precious time and energy doing things they’re not suited for.  Like I said before, specialize.   

What advice would you give a prospective student considering the Public Relations program at MacEwan versus the Communication degree? How to decide? First, know yourself and write down your goals.  Yeah, I know, that’s almost cliché career advice these days, but it’s true and being clear about that stuff will save you a lot of time and grief.  Knowing yourself means finding out what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy.  The trick is to match your natural talents with work that you enjoy.  It’s simple, but not easy.  Some folks spend their entire lives getting that one right, so hang in there. 

I consider myself a life-long student, so I plan to continue taking courses on communications in general and multi-media in particular.  It’s definitely a profitable growth field because we live in an era of communications and employers/ clients will gladly pay those who have taken the time to develop their skills.   I’m thinking about enrolling in the Communications degree program in the future, but am so busy at work these days that my schedule wouldn’t allow me the time needed to do well on the course.  As for my career plans, I’m happy to just keep doing what I’m doing.

No matter what type of communications field you get into, writing is a core skill, so become good at it.  Other than that, have fun in one of the most exciting and rewarding occupations available today!

Grant Cree is editor of The Western Sentinel and public affairs officer for CFB Edmonton, National Defence, Government of Canada.

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