By Edward M. Bury, MA, APR (aka The PRDude)
Reaching the apex of success in one aspect of communications is highly impressive. My friend and colleague Ann Knabe, PhD, APR reached that pinnacle three times. As noted in this first public relations professional profile of 2021, Ann — who I met some 10 years ago while serving on the Universal Accreditation Board — delves into the decision that launched her three-decade career, shares insight on working at the Pentagon, expounds upon the state of modern public relations and much more.
1. You have had a remarkable career that spans military service, instruction at the university level, and more recently, work in the private sector. What inspired you to pursue communications?
I followed my heart! When I started out as an undergrad at Marquette, I was originally pre-law, majoring in history and political science, thinking about a big corporate paycheck. To pay the bills during college, I was a DJ at a night club (with real vinyl records, I might add), and my boss suggested I go into “PR” because he thought I was good a good communicator and knew how to work with the media. So I switched my major and never looked back. After I changed majors, I also switched my part-time role in the Air Force Reserve, from medic to a public affairs role. That’s when I really started getting involved in strategic communication. I now have more than 30 years in Air Force public affairs, and 25 years in PR, including consulting for businesses, teaching public relations at a university, and volunteering in the veterans and public relations communities. The common thread among all of these is building relationships between key stakeholders, and working towards mutual understanding, whether it’s during crisis or a long-term strategic communications campaign. Today my favorite part of PR is strategic planning with an emphasis on research and meaningful evaluation.
2. You’re the first professional profiled here who has experience in military public affairs. Please share insight on key responsibilities and an anecdote.
When I first started in public affairs with an Air Force Reserve unit in Milwaukee, we broke our work into 4 broad areas: internal communications, community relations, media relations and congressional relations. I was primarily a writer, but also “jill of all trades.” In 1997, one of our planes crashed while attempting to land at Tegucigalpa Airport in Honduras. Three members of our wing were killed in the accident. It was tragic. The crash and resulting public affairs response helped me gain great appreciation of the power of media, the power of words, the importance of media relations, and the importance of being ready for crisis. This would shape my interests in the years to come. After more than 20 years at the local wing, I found my way to the Pentagon, and worked in public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force. In this role, I participated in more complex strategic communications, including messaging about the nuclear triad, acquisition, personnel and other tough issues. As a Reservist who would fly into D.C. for duty during the summer months (when I wasn’t teaching), it seemed daunting at first, but the military does an excellent job growing their officers and instilling confidence. And, of course, there were many deployments along the way – including several tours in the Middle East, a six-month tour when I served as the Guantanamo War Court’s Pentagon spokesperson, and a tour at U.S. Central Command in Florida where I did public affairs planning for the Middle East and Afghanistan. In every role, I faced new challenges, but added valuable lessons and skills to my strategic communications toolbox. More recently, I’ve parlayed these skills into an emergency preparedness liaison role focused on preparation for disaster within the United States.
The field of public relations continues to mature and become more strategic in nature. When I started out more than 30 years ago, we were largely focused on tactics. In the last 20 years, I have seen both military senior leaders and C-suite executives seek more meaningful, measurable results from their communication teams. And I’m not talking about numbers of press release sent out, instead, measurable effects on target audiences (how much the audience understands, or how their attitudes or behavior have changed as a result of public relations).
Another change — Within the last decade, we’ve witnessed the exponential growth of social media. I recall back in 2009, I put together the first social media conference at the where I taught, and PR practitioners were just starting to think about the power of social media. I remember one of my students challenging me in class, saying Facebook was just a fad, and I was wasting class time talking about it. Today, social media is included in the vast majority of PR plans.
A third change — which is not so good — is the rise of disinformation. Americans need to really think about where their information is coming from, and whether or not it is true. In the last 5 years, we have increasingly seen more individuals with nefarious intent deliberately distribute and publish deceptive information. This is counter to public relations and our Code of Ethics.
Serving on the Universal Accreditation Board has always been an honor, and to chair the UAB for one year was amazing. From a professional perspective, I learned how to be an even more agile leader. COVID threw us a curve ball, and, like all of America, we had to quickly learn how to adapt. Within a short amount of time, we had the entire Accreditation process available online, including computer-based testing in a proctored environment. I am also honored to have led the recent efforts to secure an agreement between the Department of Defense and the UAB concerning their commitment and involvement to the credential. But, perhaps most importantly, despite limited travel and pressure from so many directions, we were able to continue our mission uninterrupted — the maintenance and granting of Accreditation. I was blessed to work with and lead a talented team of professionals from across the nation during one of our most challenging years to date.
5. And, as customary, we conclude with an entertaining type of question. My research indicates you are a Wisconsin native — and more than likely — a Green Bay Packers fan. How can I convince you to switch allegiance to another NFL team? The Chicago Bears perhaps?
Great question, Ed! Full transparency (that’s what we like in PR!) — I am married to a Packers fan, and we have raised two Packers fans. I look at the football games as a time for me to focus on myself and let them enjoy the victory (or defeat) while I give myself a little personal time reading, shopping or getting a massage.
Perhaps more concerning to you, we are a bunch of Milwaukee Brewers fans! We consider Christian Yelich part of our extended family. We are really hoping this summer lets us get back to games at the ballpark in person, even if we have to sit with big gaps to remain socially distant. Apologies if you and your readers are a Cubs or White Sox fans, Brewers will dominate in 2021!
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An aside: As noted in this space on many occasions, I am — and will always remain — a Chicago Cubs fan. That will not jeopardize my friendship with Ann, even after the Cubs win the World Series this season. You read it here first.