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

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