Ambassador or bad apple? Perception overrules reality when it comes to media
September 13, 2013
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska -- Consider the case of the runny Greek yogurt. Recently a company voluntarily recalled their cartons of yogurt from shelves in the Lower 48, and wrote on their website, "The quality of (our) products and the trust of (our) consumers are the company's primary concern… holds itself to the highest standards and is committed to fully transparent and decisive action to rectify any identified issues."
One bad apple can spoil the barrel. At the very least, a wormy, spoilt apple can change perception about the rest of the apples in the barrel. Forgive the cliché, but it's also a truism.
I'm a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army. Part of my job is to "represent" the Army. I interact with reporters, community leaders and the public and I'm privileged to tell the "Army story." If I do it well, it should reflect well on those around me. It is a humbling responsibility.
Only lately have I considered how that responsibility extends beyond work hours. We're all in the public eye -- from Soldiers to civilian employees, Family members and retirees -- each and every one of us can and should act as ambassadors for the Army every day. That's how we are seen by those who live outside our fences. To them, we are all "the Army." If one of us behaves poorly, it reflects not only on the individual, but also on us all. In Alaska, we live in the proverbial fish bowl. Our actions are not only observed, but magnified by the fact that we -- the military -- are a big school of fish in this unique, Alaskan pond. Our actions, in or out of uniform, are watched carefully. Case in point: Not so long ago, at a department store in town, an able-bodied Soldier parked his vehicle in a handicap space. What made it worse: a wheelchair-bound gentleman reported back to post that the Soldier offered a weak excuse for his illegal parking; he was "waiting for a friend." Like a slug, he seemed disinclined to move.
It seems handicap spaces are irresistible to some able-bodied Soldiers. This summer our office received a communiqué from a military veteran who witnessed an Army officer verbally assault a park employee when he asked her to remove her motor home from a handicap spot, as she had neither the permit nor anyone in her party who needed handicap access. Rather than move to another space the caller claimed the officer insisted the park employee look the other way because of her rank.
The military has an amazing relationship with our neighboring communities; to squander even a little of the public's good will for something as silly as a parking spot close to the door makes no sense at all. In my position in public affairs I've heard stories -- both good and bad -- about our Soldiers and their off-post activities. The good far out-weighs the bad, but I'm not the first to notice that the bad seems to get more press coverage. Rather than concern ourselves with what we cannot control, let's look at how we can virtually eliminate the negative impressions we make by living the Army's core values: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage.
The Army's reputation can be marred by one Soldier's actions or my own actions, by anyone affiliated with the Army. Not long ago I witnessed a Soldier in a government vehicle nearly force a privately-owned vehicle off the road when the Army vehicle entered the freeway, crossing immediately out of the merge lane and across several lanes of traffic. He cut off a truck driver who then braked hard and swerved to avoid a collision with the Soldier. The man nearly lost control of his pickup when two wheels on the passenger side left the ground.
Obviously the Soldier was in a rush -- he took the next exit. After the initial heart-pounding scare, I was angry with the Soldier for risking his life and others'. I wondered if he knew how close he came to taking innocent lives.
In life the good outweighs the bad. In media, a single act by one person can tip perception of an organization, even a geographic region.
I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with and around Soldiers when they volunteer to support community events and take time to volunteer at local schools on and off post. Can we rely on positive, contributing individuals to demonstrate what right looks like and protect the reputation of the Army and its Soldiers?
For more than two decades I've been a military spouse (and met my husband while I was in the U.S. Air Force). I am proud of my husband's service to his country. I enjoy my job very much. I can't imagine another career that offers as much opportunity to work with and among the nation's finest.
I'm proud of "my Soldiers." I take pride in the professionalism, selflessness and frequent acts of heroism at war and on the home front.
I am humbled.
I appreciate that in this job I have an opportunity to serve those who serve.
Where I go, who I socialize with, the choices I make can impact the public's view of my coworkers, my leaders, my garrison -- even the Department of the Army. My actions, on and off-duty, can reflect well or poorly on those around me. The same is true for you. Uphold the core values, on and off duty.
People are watching; people are talking.