Covering the Military Stories: Howard Altman

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Unless you read Army Times or other military publications, stories about the military members are not common in mainstream media. However, at The Tampa Bay Times in Florida, Senior Military Staff Writer Howard Altman has found his niche, building trust among this community and traveling across the world to cover their stories. These include conversations with generals in war zones, struggles of the veteran population or the toll of military life among family members.

His career as a journalist and editor spans over 30 years covering a variety of topics for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newton-News Tribune, City Paper and The Tampa Tribune. I asked Howard about building relationships, and how he continues innovating in a challenging industry.

When you became a journalist, did you have an idea of what type of stories you wanted to cover?

I knew I wanted to shine a light on bigger issues, bigger problems. Just looking back at some of the coverage we did such as mayor race in Philly, or how the high rises where not required to have sprinklers and some firefighters died. We did a series of stories on that and it changed things. That kind of thing has always been important to me.

You cover a lot of stories about the military. Is there anything that has surprised you or anything interesting that you have found in your coverage?

It’s all fascinating. We have a military base (McDill Air Force Base) which has two Combatant Commands. It has component commands, it’s got two air force wings and mission partners. So there is a wide range of things to cover. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain and other places. I’ve been embedded with special forces groups. This week I wrote a series of stories about World War I, World War II, current conflicts, and even the sickening of embassy workers. I cover the VA all the time. We have two of the busiest VA hospitals in the country and one of the busiest VA claim centers. There is so much stuff going on.

How do you identify a good story?

My phone rings pretty much 24/7. I like the human element, I like stories about technology. I wrote a story about the drones that can deliver blood. You know fascinating stuff. [Building relations] is really challenging. The military doesn’t always like to talk to reporters, especially a lot of the special forces. So I kind of always approach it like a Green Beret ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha]. When they are traveling outside the wire, they go out and sit down down with a key leader and find out what is going on. For me it’s similar minus the body armor, the MRAPs, the M4 and people shooting at me. You meet key leaders, you build networks, build trust over time, and trust is very difficult to build.

I think people know I have no particular agenda, I’m not anti-military or pro-military, I tell the stories as they are. That is where the trust is. Probably twice a year I talk with the SOF [Special Forces] at the Joint Special Operations University about the various issues that we face and how can we work better to tell their story; about what frustrates me and what frustrates them. I go to all kinds of events such as Operation Helping Hand dinner and people see me out in the community a lot. So I build trust and people come and tell me stories constantly.

What do you think makes a good journalist?

Somebody who is curious, who is skeptical, who is willing to work hard to dig up the facts. Someone that will challenge their own assumptions, challenge own thesis, not cut corners, not make stuff up, either people or quotes. Who makes sure that the documents they are getting are the provenance, that are real. You have to have a passion for this job because lets face it: it does not pay very much and everybody hates you.

How do you survive to all the changes in journalism? How do you adapt?

I was always an innovator. I worked in one of the first newspapers to go online. One of the editors, around 1993, said “one day, people will be able to see how many people look at each one of your stories and for how long.” That was crazy then. So I’ve always been atuned to where the audience is. That is one thing.

The other thing is, when I took over the Philadelphia City Paper, I thought it was very important to find vertical niches. Then identify which one would be popular and really own the politics, media coverage, urban design and those kinds of things. I continue to believe that in the terms of the military coverage.

The Tampa Bay Times did great covering Veterans issues but they were not able to crack the military. After they took out the Tampa Tribune, they brought me on board knowing that I had this audience. It’s a lot, and its conservative; people who would not necessarily read The Times otherwise. We cover their issues. I try to go vertical and try to own it.

Would you recommend anyone to become a journalist?

I always say run away (laughs).  For democracy to succeed we need good journalists, strong journalists, accurate journalists, unbiased journalists. Now more so than ever. I’ve done all kinds of things, I’ve met all kinds of people: cut up jokes with Mel Brooks, sat down with generals and presidents, met princesses, go to places people don’t go, see things people don’t see. Its fascinating and I highly recommend it.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Managing knowledge in the military: Interview with John Fay

By: Yadira Y. Caro

When I was considering a job in Europe as a knowledge management consultant in the Department of Defense (DoD), I called a senior colleague who has worked closely with the organization I would be working for, the knowledge management team at the European Command (EUCOM). “They have one of the most solid programs of KM in the DoD,” he said. The reason for this, he added, was John Fay. At the time, Fay had been the leading the development of this program for over ten years.

In case you are wondering, Knowledge Management (KM) is a concept developed in the early 90s. It usually refers to the improvement of how an organization manages its information: think all the info produced and shared on a daily basis via meetings, emails, presentations, etc. KM does this primarily through the creation of technical tools and systems; but it also addresses improving process efficiency and focus on creating a company culture of sharing and collaborating.  Knowledge Management is used in the commercial world, and in the DoD, it has been used to address the amount of information the staff provides its leaders to make decisions and deal with the high turnover rate: a person can spend from one to three years in a place before they have to be reassigned.

Fay has been advocating and practicing this discipline for over 15 years. He is now heading for a couple of years to the National War College as he has been selected with other senior leaders for a program on Strategic Studies. Before he left Germany, where EUCOM is based, we talked about his career in KM.

Why did you choose military service?

I think I am a patriotic kind of person who appreciates what our country has blessed me with so I wanted to give something back. It was also a means to an end: I was lost as a high school student and I needed to find direction professionally. It was a way for me to live out some of my aspirations and buy some time, so I joined the Navy.

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 How would you describe what you have been doing in the past ten years?

After I came back from the Navy and was a contractor, I spent time in a number of different knowledge management fields. I was doing something that was KM like in the military, so I looked for something like that. I found a real affinity in helping make an organization better, to build stronger teams to enable them to perform better. I did this for the Air Force, then I did it for a joint agency, then I moved on to the Marines.

In all of those different jobs they all had a common thread of just trying to make on an organization better, to improve their performance, and empower them to accomplish the mission.  I find that very compelling. It’s great thrill to see an organization go from hurting or dysfunctional to healthy and functional.

I have been able to see a lot of that occur here at EUCOM: I came on board when knowledge management was just an idea. That is what I have been doing for 14 years — to implement the objectives, the principles of knowledge management, and infuse them into the DNA of EUCOM.  To make it a knowledge-enabled organization.

What makes a successful KM program?

What I tell people when asked this question is that it is two-fold. First, you must make yourself relevant, your Knowledge Management program has to be relevant. I think this is key in any new area if you are investing in something new, if it’s not satisfying the requirements of the organization you are serving, then it won’t be deemed valuable. We were intimately plugged into exercises and operations at the time and we had high-level DoD leadership backing.

What we omitted doing was establishing or institutionalizing the practice of KM. We did not develop any kind of KM doctrine or policy for EUCOM until many years later. Our program, while relevant and offering resources, grew quickly and to a large size. The KM branch was about 30-35 people at its peak. But we did not have a direction, we could not say this what we are here to do.  The direction of the organization was personality-driven. As a result we did not get done what we wanted and the things that we did get done were abandoned when other people who were the personality-drivers left. Therefore, the second thing you need to do is to work on the policy to establish the culture that accepts the new initiatives.

How would describe what is KM to people outside DoD?

I think the definition we adopted is perfect. It is a small part of the Army’s definition, so we don’t claim that we created it. It is “to enable the flow of knowledge to enhance shared understanding, learning, and decision making (or performance).” What I like about that is that if you get right at the movement of information and that learning enables action. You cannot take effective action without learning. Once you become aware, you learn; after learning then you can take action.

If anybody wanted to practice km in the DoD, what do you recommend they should do. What skills they should learn?

If you are in a different field and you see an opportunity to improve things, you can be a knowledge manager. In fact, aren’t we all knowledge workers? We need some kind of knowledge to perform our jobs.

That is a very entrepreneurial kind of thing, if you are willing to take a step and try it out, you can implement a KM initiative very easily in any organization. It does not require a great deal of expertise. I am exhibit A (laughs). We are out of the box thinkers. It does not need to be your chosen profession.

There are of course some things you can study, but I would say, in most cases, those that are hiring KM practitioners of any kind are looking for people who can solve a problem. So if you are open minded and creative, whether or not you have the certifications, which always help, I think you can contribute to a KM organization.

Is there any failure you had which tuned into something positive later on?

We wanted to automate the production of the morning update brief because the Joint Operations Center staff was investing thousands of hours over the course of the year to produce it. A lot of the content can be derived automatically, not everything, but a substantial percentage. Why spend so much time producing it when we can have machines gather it and put it up on a screen?

So we thought there was a great opportunity for time saving and furthermore, we wanted to help people stop spending so much time on the presentation, on the medium in which they present. We instituted a technical solution to implement it, and we thought we had the right endorsement: from the joint operations center team chief all the way up to the deputy commander (3 star level) — we had support. But in the end, it failed. It was not accepted because of the people that were below our sponsors.

We had endeavored to effect too much change too fast and not appreciate the risk: the risk to those people who were going to be the conveyors of the information.

When the Battle Watch Captain, who was not one of our sponsors, stands in front of the Deputy Commander, and essentially recites the script, he and his team are responsible for that information. If they do not control that information, they are not comfortable with that, so there was a visceral resistance to an automatically generated brief. Because we did not appreciate the risk, there was reluctance and stalling and eventually they convinced our sponsors that the risk was reasonable and our solution failed.

What we learned from that is that we must understand all the dynamics of the problem set when you try to address it. If you do not tackle such a problem with complete partnerships with the parties involved there is no reason to expect you will succeed.

What books, websites or resources do you recommend?

One reads to be challenged or stretched. When I want to develop my KM skills, I read relevant works like Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice(Dalkir) and Unlocking Knowledge Assets(Conway). Unfortunately there are few very practical guides to KM, so I turn to what I can find from leading practitioners like David Snowden or one of my communities of interest/practice like the Joint KM forum in MilBook.  My current reading falls into three areas:  personal development, leadership development, and academic.  The currently open and recently closed books on my “nightstand” are the Bible, Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner), What Got You Here Won’t Get You There(Goldsmith), Brief(McCormack), and a pile of national strategy documents and articles for a class I’m finishing.  I’m also reading aloud Eldest (Paolini) with my son just for fun.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Translating Militarisms and Other PR Lessons from a Soldier: Interview with Mitch Marovitz

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Mitch Marovitz’s career in communications was formed by his experience in the US Army. Mitch, who is currently President of the Public Relations Society National Capital chapter, says the service taught him about public affairs, broadcasting and leadership.

During his 30 year career, he developed audio visual training lessons for the U.S. Army Armor School, commanded American Forces Radio and Television Service networks in Central America and Europe, commanded the European edition of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and represented the Army with the entertainment industry. After his military career, he transitioned to the commercial world becoming a management consultant team lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, and a university professor. He also has a PhD in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation from Syracuse University.

As a person who has been able to easily adapt to the military and civilian worlds, I wanted to know about the lessons he learned along the way, and get an insider’s scope of working in Hollywood.

How did you got involved with public relations?

I was stationed in Europe in the mid- to late 1970s but I did not go to Germany, I went to Italy. My wife and I had been married a year when we went overseas. I was a signal platoon leader. My unit provided communications for the Southern European Task Force. After only a few months in Italy, I was about to get promoted out of my job since the job I was in was for a Lieutenant and I was about to become a Captain. The Army had trouble finding a job for me in Italy at first but then I got lucky. There was a brand new radio and TV network that just started in Italy. The officer who led it returned to the US and they needed someone to run it. Here I was: I had this experience in producing audio visual educational lessons and a degree in radio and TV production (in college). I was interviewed by the public affairs officer who was responsible for this nascent network and I got the job. Because of that, I got the 46 MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) designator as a public affairs officer (broadcasting is a subset of public affairs in the Army).

How difficult was it to communicate that military perspective to the commercial industry?

That’s a good question. It’s important to be able to translate ‘military terminology into everyday English used in business by employers who will hire you.

It all goes to the same (PR principles): know who are you talking to, know your audience, that is such an important tenant of what we do. I could speak to some potential employers fairly normally because they were veterans groups or had some affiliation within the military; I could use some abbreviations and acronyms and do just fine. I had to “translate” military terms and experiences for others so they could understand the scope of my responsibilities.

What was one of the biggest challenges you had? Was it during that time?

My tests occurred at different levels. Depending on where you are in your career, I think that the tests that we have as PR practitioners vary… Some of the biggest challenges I had as a leader, the most stressful ones certainly, were the ones I had when deployed.

Fortunately, no bullets were fired in Bosnia but from our point of view we were prepared for the worst. My job was to provide information and entertainment for the deployed troops and to take care of my troops while doing so; to get what my people needed in terms of logistical support like spare parts, telecommunications circuits, production support, food, warm clothes; being able to get those items consumed me.

What we did was very important. All of us shared that motivation. I’ll tell you how important our service was to our audience. I got a satellite call from a young soldier, one of my technicians… It was winter of 1995.We (American troops) were crossing the Sava River and there was huge snowstorm. The Sava River overflowed its banks and it flooded everything, the Soldiers had absolutely nothing, their clothes were all destroyed and all they had was AFN (American Forces Network) radio and TV which we were providing by way of satellite.

The technician, one of my Soldiers, needed some advice. He was sent to move a satellite dish to prepare for a troop movement. My technician said that an Army officer was threatening him, telling him that he was not going to move the satellite dish; that was all (the troops) had, they had nothing else. Everything else they had was destroyed. So I asked my Soldier, ‘do you have an extra dish any place that you could use in place of this dish?’ ‘I do,’ I said, ‘Fine. Use it. Don’t move this officer’s dish, we’ll get an extra dish for you to put it where it needs to be.’… And everybody was happy.

Another challenge Mitch described was putting together an internal media plan in which all services (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines) agreed. He considered that “one of my greatest feasts.” Then in 1992, he became the chief for Army Public Affairs branch in Los Angeles where he encountered a different set of challenges.

There are so many misconceptions about representing the Army in LA. I found the people of LA and the entertainment industry in general quite friendly and willing to engage with me.

It was not my job to convince writers, producers and directors to do military stories; I did not really need to do that anyway because military stories often explore the human condition and interpersonal relations, especially Army stories. I did, however, have to help them with dialog, specific situations that are realistic for that time’s military members, and set dressing. So I spent a lot of time, days. In fact, about 2 days a week I went to one studio lot or another and just talk to producers and writers.

I truly enjoyed working with screenwriters and producers. I like to think I got along well with them and enjoyed sharing ideas in an easy going “back and forth” conversation. Maybe, however, it’s due to the fact that it is much easier to change a script before a director gets assigned to the film than after. Once a director is assigned to a film, it becomes his or hers. and all suggestions go through the filter of the director’s vision. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that it is harder to make changes to the story. For TV is different,; the producer is very important on a TV show. You have to know your medium and who is really in charge.

Could you give some examples of the initiatives and films you worked in Hollywood?

I spent a lot of time with Maggie Renzie, the producer for independent film director John Sayles. He produced a number of wonderful independent films. I worked on a film called Lone Star.. We provided the production company a lot of assistance, which we were proud to do as it is a wonderful film hoped to be able to give it complete 100 per cent support. But John would not allow a military person on set while he was filming. He did not want any perception that a Government representative was on the set of his movie. I explained that we are on the set for two reasons: one, to make sure the film company shoots what was promised and two, (we are) the last line of defense for uniform violations and things like that.

That came in handy cause I was doing this one movie for HBO called The Tuskegee Airmen and I just happened to be on the set. I was filling in for the regular technical advisor who had to be away. I noticed that the character Ben O. Davis was wearing the wrong rank for this particular scene. The director was very thankful and he reshot the scene and got the right brass on the actor’s uniform; (the actor) was Andre Braugher and (he did it) willingly, no problem at all because he did not want his character in the wrong uniform in the movie. So those are the kind of services that we provided.

Getting back to Lonestar, since Mr. Sayles did not want the government on his set, we could not give him full assistance and I felt really bad about that. We did provide courtesy assistance, however, meaning we provided research and dialog consulting services as requested. Sadly, there is a uniform violation in one scene that we might have corrected had we been on the set but I am not going to tell you what it was (laughs).

Now that you are a professor, what are some of the lessons you want the students to takeaway? What are some of the differences of what they learn in school in comparison to what they’ll see on the workplace?

It’s a tough question and I can only answer for myself. Teaching undergraduates is different than teaching graduates. Teaching undergraduates is not (about) teaching a lot of theories. We touch on them, of course, but principally, for undergraduates, we are teaching them how to do the work they will be expected to do on the job. It’s very tactical.It’s at the masters and the PhD levels that we start trying to relate practice to theory. That is in my opinion what being a master is all about. Understanding the principles primarily of public relations and the principles upon where those principles are based.

(…) From my perspective, I teach theory because I want my graduate students to be armed with all of these approaches to problem solving and to understand when they work best and how they work best. I am fortunate because I have had a lot experience in my life and I try my best to provide the right examples and demonstrate the principles that these theories represent and what they look like in real life.

Follow Mitch Marovitz on Twitter at @MitchMarovitz

Follow the author on Twitter at @YadiCaroCaro