Minnesota National Guard team melds military and media roles

By JOHN RASH | The Star (Minneapolis, Minn.) Tribune | Published: November 9, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The military descriptor “highly decorated unit” typically refers to medals.

But different kinds of acknowledgment — four regional Emmy Awards and numerous awards from the Public Relations Society of America and the Minnesota Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators — have been earned over the past six years by the public-affairs team of the Minnesota National Guard.

Of course, many members of the team of 16 full-time and 15 part-time soldiers and airmen throughout Minnesota have also earned military recognition for telling the stories of the deployments they themselves took part in.

On Monday, Veterans Day, some will work on the Minnesota National Guard’s radio show, which is carried statewide on 18 stations.

“What we do here is what any communication department at a 14,000-person organization does: We are responsible for communicating what our great soldiers and airmen do across the Minnesota National Guard,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, who leads the team.

Of course, most communication departments aren’t sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, or any of the 33 countries where more than 26,000 Guard members have been deployed since 9/11.

And most don’t have a crisis communications strategy for loss of life. Sadly, it’s been needed: 18 Minnesota National Guard members have died during deployment since 2001. And there have been other challenges.

“We’ve had to communicate a very high rate of suicide,” Olson said. “Our message to our service members is that it’s OK to ask for help. And our message to our external audience is it’s an issue that’s prevalent in society, and the National Guard is no different.”

This link to society differentiates Guard service. Many team members’ communications careers bring expertise that bolsters both roles.

Sgt. Johnny Angelo, for instance, floor-directs TPT’s “Almanac” on a part-time basis.

“It goes back and forth,” said Angelo. “I get to work with different directors over there that give me a different perspective. And some of the things I learn here, I bring to TPT.” Angelo’s deployment plays a role in his versatility. “When I was in the field in Iraq, I was the cameraman, the sound guy, the light guy, the director all in one. Being able to do all the things allowed me to get a different perspective.”

A different perspective, and skills, can better Guard members’ communities, too. Air Force Maj. Sheree Savage and her husband purchased Uptown Plumbing, Heating and Cooling after he returned from his Iraq deployment. In three years, Savage said, the business grew 300 percent and several employees, including veterans, were hired.

“We didn’t have the money to hire an ad agency, so I completely designed the entire brand from the floor up,” Savage recalled. “I sincerely contribute our business success to the military — to what it provides and the values that you live and practice.”

And like many of his team, Olson melds his military and marketing experience — he’s an adjunct instructor at Concordia University in St. Paul. “I was their first master’s student to accept their diploma by videotape while I was deployed in Iraq,” Olson said. “Because of my professional experience, I was asked to teach in their strategic communication program.”

Minnesota — and military — modesty keeps most from boasting. But reflecting on her team, Savage said: “What makes us unique is a high percentage of us work in civilian fields that are related to public affairs, and that we have a high number of us who have served past our original commitment because we want to.”

They’ve also gained insight from the 40 journalists who have embedded with the Minnesota National Guard since 9/11. “For our service members, it’s almost as if they are getting an award, because an outlet from their hometown cares enough to send someone to tell their story firsthand,” Olson said. “We don’t place any restrictions — there is no censorship like there used to be in past wars. We trust our soldiers and airmen to tell their stories.” (This reflects my experience interviewing dozens of soldiers during a 2011 trip to Kuwait.)

The embed experience has also given Olson perspective on the perception of media bias.

“I often get asked the question from my vantage point: ‘Do you think the media is liberal or conservative-leaning?’ As it relates to covering the Minnesota National Guard, I would say neither. I would say if a media has bias, that bias is they are willing to invest the time and talent to spend time with our service members in an austere condition to tell their story firsthand.”

Those austere conditions still exist in Afghanistan. But with the planned drawdown there, the post-9/11 deployment era will likely yield more to Minnesota missions — albeit sometimes without much notice.

Regardless, Savage said, “I look forward to that phone call, because it gives us the opportunity to say why 100 other people have to leave their families, find child care, leave their employers. And if it wasn’t for public affairs, they wouldn’t have that confidence that their community would be OK.”

“I have a bag packed at all times,” added Angelo, reflecting his team’s mission, as well as the National Guard’s motto: Always Ready.

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