Information Warfare: A PAO That Mao Would Love

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March 25, 2009: The Chinese armed forces now have their own professional Public Affairs Officers (PAOs). The first class of 51 Chinese PAOs recently graduated from a two week course. Western forces have had such media professionals for decades, but in China, propaganda/media specialists from the Chinese Communist Party have long handled the media needs of the military. But now the military will increasingly handle its PR itself, largely because military affairs involve a lot of highly technical matters that are best handled by specialists (army officers).

In the United States, the Defense Information School was established right after World War II, and many other major nations followed suit in subsequent decades. These schools educated officers and NCOs to handle the media effectively. The communist nations, following the lead of the Soviet Union, tightly controlled their own domestic media (which was all state owned). All of these police states maintained large propaganda organizations, which had media specialists trained to deal with foreign media. But since these media specialists spent most of the time in a police state, where there was no free, and aggressive, media, they had problems dealing with reporters who could ask embarrassing questions.

China is still a police state, but it has a growing media industry that is partly free. These privately owned publishers and broadcasters are expected to self-censor, or know when to call a government media specialist for the correct "guidance." But China is now a major importer and exporter, and host to millions of foreign visitors each year. There are a lot more opportunities for people in China to ask government officials, including those from the military, tricky questions. China is also sending more troops on peacekeeping or disaster relief missions. So now the military is training officers to handle a free press, or at least have a fighting chance.

The PAO (Public Affairs Officers) is very much a post World War II development. Before that, bright young officers were generally appointed to deal with the media. The understanding was that if the improvised "press officer" did well, promotions would come faster. After World War I, Douglas MacArthur was appointed by the army to deal with the mass media, and he did quite well. MacArthur was head of the army before too long. But as the mass media became more complex, so did the job of the PAO. The solution was to make it a military specialty, and provide appropriate training for it.

 


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