When it comes to challenging environments for a professional communicator, it doesn't get more so than the military, especially when posted overseas. However, Commander Theresa Carpenter has carved out an extensive, varied and fascinating career in public affairs for the U.S. Navy.

Cmdr. Carpenter has taken those unique experiences and adapted them into a compelling podcast, using her skills as a storyteller to share what she has seen to with a wider audience.

Your career in public affairs in the military must have taken you on some amazing journeys, literally and figuratively. What stands out to you as the greatest aspects of working in public affairs in an environment such as this.

So many aspects come to mind as memorable, but I would say when I've played a part in making history as a communicator. I was part of the first land-based iteration of Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian mission in the Asia Pacific run by the Navy Seabees. I always love when I can immerse myself into another person's world, which is why I love being a storyteller and bringing to life someone's journey. I felt a similar experience learning about the military's Foreign Area Officers, also known as "warrior diplomats," on a trip to El Salvador last spring. Beyond that, I enjoy building relationships with reporters and the people who do public affairs in the countries we work with. The most significant part of my career is the incredible people I meet, from those at the Embassies to the media to the military forces from all branches and walks of life.

You've travelled significantly throughout your career. In your media roles, what did you find were the differences and challenges being stationed overseas?

When working with the public affairs officers in other countries, I found that they did not have as large as staff as we do, and with that, they could be more agile in their communications with reporters. In the Philippines, I can remember that the Armed Forces of the Philippines public affairs officer could answer even controversial questions directly because within U.S. military communications, there are so many sensitivities and people involved in the messaging aspects of our craft. I was not always able to be as responsive. Usually, many levels of leadership would want me to clear media products through another country's PA office. Still, fortunately, they would give me clearance once we agreed on the messaging strategy because I worked to gain trust. So, there are just differences in how we work overseas. We must clear everything through the Embassy as they are the lead spokespersons in the country when it comes to communication strategy. I have always enjoyed working with the State Department, but all of these layers of coordination take time, and often we cannot be as quick to respond as other nations can.

I always love when I can immerse myself into another person's world

You have experience in community relations. How do you feel this weaves in with public affairs work?

I was the community relations director for U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, where I managed the distinguished visitor program for the aircraft carriers transiting Oahu, Hawaii. In the latter command, I helped put together the calendar of events to help deconflict the myriad of community groups requesting support, such as a Joint Service Color Guard. Similar to my roles in public affairs, working with media, the public, or our staff, the stakeholders were just different. I often had to work with nonprofits or prominent business leaders, taking into account what they were looking for when working with the military. Sometimes community relations take a back seat to other parts of the PAO toolkit because we can get caught up in the crisis de jour, but building those ties within the community, especially for those PAOs that work on the base, is essential. It's also imperative to build these relationships slowly and before a crisis. I would routinely set up luncheons and get to know community leaders and reporters.

The military is undoubtedly more data driven and structured than a lot of places. As a communications professional did you find this to be frustrating or did it push you to be more creative?

I think the emphasis on data is helpful. We all want to know if our messages resonated with our intended audiences and if not, why. Data is the only way to know what works and what needs refining. The creative aspect comes when many military public affairs offices are not funded for analysts or with assessment software to measure sentiment. Some laws make collecting surveys more cumbersome. So, we have to find ways to research using secondary methods such as Gallop reports or other commercial research sources. The structure in the military helps me focus, and it forces me to level up my communication game because I cannot go to my commander with a problem without a suggested way to fix it. Then, my solution is researched-based, not just a feeling or gut instinct. I look forward to deepening into assessment and using these tools as my career progresses. 

It's also imperative to build [these] relationships slowly and before a crisis.

What would you say about the need to implement data-driven media operations? What are the benefits?

I would say that it's essential, mainly because we operate globally, and not only are we monitoring U.S. media outlets but also international press. With the rise in social media influencers, it's not just journalists who get to set the news agenda anymore. We live in an unprecedented time in history where the average citizen, if they have a compelling message too, can break through the clutter and garner significant media coverage. As public affairs officers, we must communicate with these influencers and the mainstream media. 

When you've delivered media training, what would you say are the most common questions that come up around the media and how do you answer them?

I find our subject matter experts do not understand that you don't have to answer every reporter's question. Often, a reporter is asking a question outside the scope of that person's expertise. I have found that this occurs because the reporter does not know the right person to ask. If one of our leaders happens to be at the podium taking questions, they are a target of opportunity for the more detailed research that the reporter needs to do to get the question answered. Or the reporter might feel like another military organization hasn't responded to the question to their liking, so they'll attempt to ask the one available person. These misunderstandings are why, above all else, I stress to public affairs officers that an essential aspect of media relations is building rapport with news media representatives. One must meet the media that cover an organization routinely before a crisis hits, and it's on the PAO to have researched that reporter's area of expertise and previous articles to get a feel for what questions the subject matter expert may receive. People often get so stressed about going on camera, and they tend to get so nervous. Still, the subject matter expert should treat the interview as a non-threatening conversation and opportunity to frame the issue from the perspective of that organization.

I must pass along my lessons learned and best practices to the communicators more junior than myself

You've also gained great experience and education along the way. What advice would you give to someone around career development in public affairs?

There are two factors that I believe played the most significant role in my becoming a successful communicator. Early on in my career, I identified mentors. I intentionally sought out people in my industry who had qualities that I admire. I would ask them questions on overcoming adversity, what kinds of products their teams produce, and how they advise senior military leaders. I knew that their insights would be invaluable to my success as a communicator. Just as importantly, I must pass along my lessons learned and best practices to the communicators more junior than myself. Secondly, getting professional certifications helps lend credibility to your public affairs toolkit. I have been particularly impressed that the Navy public affairs community now makes professional accreditation a determining factor within our promotion system. This competency distinguishes professionals, and not only that, it opens us to exposure to communicators from all industries and lets us learn what our similarities are and our differences.   

What prompted you to start up your podcast?

I have had the honor to cross paths with so many amazing people throughout my lifetime-the kinds of people who inspired me to become a better human. I overcame a lot of self-induced trauma and external adversity with the love and support of so many people. I wanted to create a platform to demonstrate how being of service and giving back to others takes the attention off of ourselves and whatever is troubling us. It's the best therapy I feel we can do to overcome our struggles. I also saw it as an opportunity to help others by bringing on guests who shared wisdom. 

What are the most memorable moments of that podcast?

It's times when a guest tells me how they overcame a significant obstacle. One of my early guests, Jenni Harmon, decided to take up skateboarding in her 40s, and she talked about how going to the park with all the teenaged boys was so intimidating, but she pushed through the anxiety she felt. When I asked her how she did it, she said she wanted to be an example to her sons that they too can achieve feats outside of their comfort zone. There were so many lessons during the podcast, such as when she stressed the importance of being unapologetic about who she is. We all have our quirks or unique personality aspects that make us who we are. I have found that once people embrace that, so many opportunities can fall into place.

Making the transition from active service to where you are now must have been challenging. In terms of what you are doing now, has it changed the way you communicate with your audience?

I am still serving in the Navy, and I am now a commander, but it's only been in the last couple of years that I have decided to expand my off-duty social media presence. The communication projects I take on outside of the military helps within the service because I can experiment with what I am doing with my podcast and then take that into my professional life. My husband and I run a travel and lifestyle YouTube channel. It was the catalyst that inspired me to learn video editing. This skill has made me a better leader for my teams because I can mentor them when putting together media products. As a public affairs officer and communicator in my off-duty endeavors, both have changed how I deliver messages. It's not only improved my communication skills professionally, but it has also made my relationships more fulfilling because I can take the skills I am gaining and use those to help those communicators more junior than myself.   

You describe yourself as a storyteller and you are now using your skills and experience to empower others. Why is storytelling so important in contrast to reporting the news?

The best news reporters are also storytellers. Storytelling helps me understand why a concept is so important. I have been captivated by stories ever since my Father, a voiceover artist, used to read stories out loud to me. I was a voracious reader as a child, and I loved being able to escape into someone else's life by immersing myself in their story. Using storytelling is the most powerful tool a communicator can use to deliver a message, and that's why I think it's so important that everyone has the opportunity and tools to tell their story. When we share our stories, we help one another by knowing we're not alone and that someone also may have struggled with a particular issue.

Connect with Theresa on LinkedIn and visit her site and podcast

October 19, 2021
PIO People

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