It could have been any one of dozens of professional networking events happening on a weekday around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. But this particular group of 50 seasoned public affairs professionals gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia for an event the first of its kind — specifically empowering military communicators in their transition into civilian public relations careers.
The PRSA National Capital Chapter kicked off its comprehensive Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop with a networking session in the Memorial’s panoramic atrium where military communicators both active duty and veteran service members in military and business attire mingled with panelists and other attendees prior to the panel discussion.
Navy public affairs officers Elizabeth Zimmerman, a 20-year veteran and her colleague, Michael Sheehan, a 16-year veteran who flew in from Minneapolis for the program, were eager for it to begin.
“I am here to glean insight into the transition process, all the do’s and don’ts, and make new contacts,” said Zimmerman, whose transition begins in two months.
“I did really well in the military side of public affairs, so now I am exploring how to translate my skills effectively in the civilian world,” added Sheehan.
Against a backdrop of assorted flags representing various states, territories, and all the branches of the military, six panelists – all military veterans themselves – provided an overview of their professional backgrounds and experiences, sharing insights on successfully making the switch.
David Albritton, a Navy public affairs veteran, currently chief communications officer at Exelis, kicked off the panel discussion by championing the power of networking, having good mentors, and thinking strategically about one’s key strengths and how they fit into the big picture of target organizations.
“Every opportunity I ever had came because of someone in my network,” said Albritton.
Vox Optima owner and executive director, Merritt Hamilton Allen, humorously shared that she was initially “the public affairs officer that no one wanted” but sheer resilience and willingness to be flexible and continuously step up to new challenges despite health setbacks has been instrumental to her success. As an entrepreneur, she has also proven to be a person of her word, hiring vets who make up two-thirds of her staff, and speaking up about the challenges and opportunities disabled veterans face.
Twenty-year Air Force vet, Jon Anderson, who is now deputy director of public affairs for the National Guard Bureau, emphasized honest self and skills assessment.
“When I applied for jobs, everyone knew what I was capable of,” he said. Anderson also quelled any apprehension about the transition process, “Things weren’t so different when I left the Air Force. I still had to work long hours and continually challenge myself to learn new skills,” he said. This commitment to improvement led him to join PRSA where he also received his Accreditation in Public Relations.
A love of everything about media led Vic Beck, a retired Navy Reserve flag officer, and now managing director at Burson-Marsteller, to a long, impressive career in public affairs. He encouraged veterans to be tenacious during this phase of their careers.
“Do informational interviews, find people who are leaving military service now and talk to them,” he said. “Keep your contacts warm, take a no ‘shrinking violet’ approach – ask for advice, tips, help.”
Hiram Bell, strategic planning and communication chief at U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate and a 31-year Army veteran said he actively sought out mentors “who gave me advice about jobs I was suitable and unsuitable for – armed with such invaluable feedback one can dig a little deeper, better,” said Bell.
As chief executive officer and founder of ScoutComms, Fred Wellman was not shy about working online connections via LinkedIn and setting up coffee meetings to grow his professional contacts.
“Experiences unique to their service is what vets bring wherever they go – they know firsthand how to solve problems. This is a skill needed everywhere.” Wellman said. “Go beyond the job sites, invite people to coffee, and ask them to introduce you to more people.”
The panel discussion closed with Q & A followed by one-on-one mentoring, career counseling and resume review sessions for which participants signed up at arrival.
A culmination of weeks of planning, the event was part of a broader PRSA Moving Veterans Forward initiative launched in the fall of 2013. By spring of 2014, the PRSA-NCC, the organization’s largest chapter, started enrolling participants in the D.C. area. Benefits of the program include a one-year free PRSA and PRSA-NCC membership, resume writing, networking, and job interview advice from PRSA-NCC mentors.
“The main thing is we wanted vets and service men and women within the communications niche to know they matter,” said Richard Spector who came in from New York to represent PRSA and participate as one of 16 mentors.
“It’s not always a matter of life and death in the corporate world but vets have lived in that space – they helped protect our future, now PRSA wants to help protect theirs.”
The following individuals were panelists and mentors for the workshop participants:
Panel members and mentors:
- David Albritton, Chief Communications Officer, Exelis;
- Merritt Allen, Owner and Executive Director, Vox Optima;
- Jon Anderson, Deputy Director, Public Affairs, National Guard Bureau;
- Vic Beck, Managing Director, Burson-Marsteller;
- Hiram Bell, Chief, Strategic Planning and Communication for the U.S. Coast Guard, Acquisition Directorate
- Fred Wellman, CEO and Founder, ScoutComms
- Mitch Marovitz, USA retired, PR consultant and instructor
- Cyndi Scott-Johnson, CEO & Executive Producer, 3Roads Communications
- Russ Hodges, President & Executive Producer, 3Roads Communications
- Karen Jeffries, President, CEO, Veterans Moving Forward, Inc.
- Ginny Bueno, Communications Director, US Department of Agriculture
- Jill Wolf, Senior Communications Manager, Exelis Inc.
- Leah Lackey, Director of Commuications, Exelis Information Systems
- Janie Lee Mabe, Career coach, TechStarz, LLC
- Richard Spector, PRSA Moving Veterans Forward Initiative
A former co-chair of the PRSA-NCC membership committee, the author, Ufuoma Otu, is the founder of TakeCulture LLC which provides marketing communications solutions for international organizations. Visit: www.take-culture.com, for more information.