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What Does a Public Affairs Officer Do?

By Jan Fletcher
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A public affairs officer manages public and media relationships for a military or policing agency. Duties associated with this position can vary, and may include interacting with the public, the media and other agencies. Unlike for most civilian public affairs staff, for the military or police public information officer, decisions about whether to release some information to the public must be made according to established protocols.

Duties of a public affairs officer may include supervision of public affairs activities, cultivating relationships with the media, or releasing information to the public on military or law enforcement personnel. Other duties common to this position are encouraging positive relationships between military or enforcement agencies and civilian personnel. Educating the public as to military operations that may impact civilians is another typical duty. These officers may represent the public face of a military base or operation. They also may supervise production of newspapers and magazines distributed to military or civilian personnel.

Not all who work under the authority of public affairs officers are military or police personnel. Some are civilians, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has accepted civilian candidates for training in public affairs within a civil service position. These workers may collect and write news reports, or make public appearances to speak before community groups. Those who work in public affairs may serve in military or quasi-military positions, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Public affairs personnel experienced in media relations may also work for embassies, or may represent a nation within the organization of the United Nations (UN).

On a local or regional level, a public affairs officer may handle media requests and engage in activities that increase the public's understanding of government or enforcement agencies. An example would be a public information officer who works for the U.S. Forestry Service. He or she may visit schools to encourage prevention of forest fires, or to hold a press conference in the wake of a natural disaster.

Duties of a public affairs officer working within a military organization may include composing status reports on missing military personnel or releasing data on upcoming deployments of military personnel. He or she may also send the media notifications of deaths, injuries or reports of those missing in action. An officer working for a state police agency may have similar duties to his or her military counterpart, in this regard.

Although many of the daily actions a public affairs officer would likely perform bear similarity to his or her civilian counterpart, there are significant differences. For military or police public affairs, the format of the news released to the public must conform to an agency's protocol. Also, in the civilian realm of media publishing, it is typically considered a top priority to release breaking news to the community. Although the officer may be under tremendous pressure from the public to release news in the wake of a major military or enforcement operation, he or she will be expected to defer to the chain of command. Releasing military information without authorization is usually considered a serious breach of protocol.

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