Story by Maj. Cindi King
EASTOVER, S.C. – The smart phone, social media and 24/7 news cycle have brought tremendous challenges for communications professionals as they strive to be everywhere to gather information to share with the public. Military public affairs personnel are also operating around the clock to provide coverage in their organizations, often in multiple locations and spread across hundreds of miles.
Following two ice storms in South Carolina in 2014, the South Carolina National Guard public affairs staff identified a critical need to have designated personnel assist as the eyes and ears on-scene, as it is physically impossible to be everywhere when events unfold.
The program that addresses this need is called unit public affairs representative, or UPAR program. A UPAR is a designated Soldier in a unit who can assist share information and images with public affairs individuals to use in communications efforts. More than 40 Soldiers from over 15 units in the S.C. Army National Guard attended a UPAR workshop, conducted by the 108th Public Affairs Detachment, South Carolina Army National Guard, during drill weekend at the McCrady Training Center, Eastover, South Carolina, Jan. 11, 2015.
The commanders of units in the SCARNG were asked to select unit members to attend the training to be their UPAR. Some attendees identified themselves as having some prior experience in writing and photography, while others said they have never learned journalism skills but wanted to support the unit. Some admitted they were told to be there, but were still curious about public affairs.
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Cashion, the noncommissioned officer in charge for the 108th PAD, welcomed the attendees and gave them an overview with examples as to why their roles are so important. The PAD members served as the instructors. A military PAD includes the detachment commander and six additional Soldiers who have the military occupational skills of either 46R, a videographer, or 46Q, photojournalist.
“We understand in one session, there are limitations to how many public affairs skills we can cover or make them proficient in,” said Cashion. “Our intent is to make them aware how simply knowing how to capture a good image that tells the story with their smart phone and sending us a caption is a tremendous resource.”
Other skills the training session covered were effective writing, media interviews and social media management. Soldiers were afforded an opportunity to be interviewed, which was the highlight, as many said they had never experienced being on camera. The culminating event was a practical exercise when UPARs took images with their smart phones around the McCrady Training Center and wrote a caption to share with the class.
“The after-action review comments we received from the UPARs were extremely positive,” said Capt. Brian Hare, 108th PAD commander. “The interview portion really caught their attention and they enjoyed going out to take pictures.”
Hare added that many cited they were interested in other aspects of public affairs, and they recommended the class be two days the next time they conduct a UPAR class.
“I would really like to hear so much more about the security risks of publishing to social media and ways to negate it,” said 2nd Lt. Scott Price, 122nd Engineer Company, South Carolina Army National Guard.
The 108th PAD’s goal is to use their recommendations and host UPAR training at least bi-annually and expand the training to keep up with technology and expound on any trending communications issues or concerns.
“We are aware that our public affairs role coupled with knowing how to use social media safely in today’s world is critical for our military members,” said Hare. “It is always great to get feedback from the younger Soldiers too, as their generation grew up with this technology and have a lot of good insight.”
The South Carolina National Guard is participating in a statewide training event in March called “Vigilant Guard” where the UPARs in units supporting this large-scale disaster response exercise will have their first high visibility opportunity to showcase their skills.