Editor’s note: In this miniseries, communicators tell their stories of transitioning from internal to external communication, sharing the biggest challenges, most transferrable skills and advice for others interested in making this change. Want to share your story? Email the Catalyst editors at email@example.com.
Although I have an undergraduate public relations (PR) degree, I entered the active duty Army as an automotive maintenance officer in the Ordnance Corps after graduation — payback for my four-year Army ROTC scholarship to Syracuse University. I received my master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in human communication theory via night school. Eight years after I joined, the Army finally granted my request to serve in the public affairs functional area, which is not a full-time accession branch in the Army. (This means the Army requires you to become fully qualified in another core specialty before allowing you to serve in an additional specialty, such as public affairs.)
Enlisted personnel handle the photo journalism and broadcast journalism roles in the Army, while officers receive training in those fields and their primary role, media relations. While demands of service during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have stretched those basic premises, my initial assignment as an Army public affairs officer was in media relations at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, the post exchange and base exchange headquarters in Dallas.
I left active duty after that assignment and worked in several human resource (HR) management positions, achieving certification as a professional in human resources by the HR Certification Institute. I also volunteered as an officer with the local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter in Arlington, Texas, and as communications chair for the HR Southwest Conference while continuing to serve in the Army Reserve as a public affairs officer. Those dual track career fields, HR and PR, led to my first federal civilian job as HR communications manager at the then-National Imagery and Mapping Agency in Bethesda, Maryland.
My goal always was to return to public affairs, and three years later I had my opportunity when a position as associate editor of our agency’s flagship magazine, Edge, opened. After six months on that job, which included the tumultuous post-9/11 era at an intelligence agency, I became chief of internal communications. I next deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 as a recalled Army reservist, ostensibly in my automotive maintenance and logistics role, but ultimately as the Afghanistan theater and Office of Military Cooperation public affairs officer. I successfully petitioned to move from internal communication to media relations when I returned to my civilian job a year later, so that I might apply my war-honed media skills to our civilian Department of Defense agency public affairs office.
One of the biggest transition challenges in moving from internal to external communication is pressing for the opportunity. In some organizations those functions are mutually exclusive, and if you don’t already have media relations experience it can be hard to gain. Even after you join the media team, you likely will start with low-threat engagements with trade media rather than more hard-hitting national and international outlets. As you mature in your role, you can apply for those harder-hitting assignments.
One major change over the years has been the explosion of social media and the expanding reach of trade publications. Any story can achieve global reach through the internet with the right angle, the right lead or a turn of events driving what was an obscure topic into the mainstream. Volunteer work outside of the office can provide the necessary opportunity, as can volunteering within the office when a hot topic or need for extra hands on a big engagement arises.
Newswriting and editing skills apply equally to the internal and external communication roles. Your workforce messages and articles become part of the portfolio that demonstrates your potential for that external communication role, which includes writing news releases and speeches. At the same time, volunteering to host agency tours or brief distinguished visitors on the agency mission demonstrates your public speaking skills and ability to give and facilitate interviews.
Awareness of position changes and opportunities in your office — including networking with others within your agency, at similar agencies and with associations such as IABC — are key to making the move from internal to external communication. As an example, while working in HR rather than PR, I volunteered my communication skills in communication roles at HR associations. That exposure directly led to an interview with a communication consulting firm. Volunteer work exposes you to others in the field, grows your portfolio and demonstrates your skills.