Accreditation in Public Relations

5 Tips for Transitioning From Military Public Affairs to the Civilian Sector

Dr. Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA, keeps one foot in a combat boot and the other in civvies. With more than two decades of experience in public relations and military public affairs, Dr. Sweetser offers advice to those on the cusp of transitioning from military public affairs to the civilian sector.  

Get to know the new ward room. Looking for a job is a lot easier when you’re rubbing elbows with your peers locally in the field. Because public relations serves so many different industries, it can seem overwhelming finding a group of like-minded folks to learn from and network with in the profession.

Joining a professional organization can help. PRSA partnered with Bell, Raytheon, ScoutComms and West Virginia University to make getting that membership card even easier. The Moving Veterans Forward Initiative supports transitioning PAOs by offering a free membership to PRSA.

Learn the civilian language of PR. Military public affairs is primarily an on-the-job training approach, with a few weeks of the Defense Information School course work thrown in. I could count on both hands the number of public affairs officers I’ve met that actually had undergraduate degrees in public relations.

In the civilian world, you’re competing with professionals who went to school for public relations. You have a leg up on experience, but are a few steps behind in nomenclature. Just as the military has its own language and set of acronyms, the civilian industry has specific terms within the profession. Instead of doing morning clips, you’ll conduct an environmental scan. Get familiar with the terms of the civilian side of your craft.

Communicate clearly. The military loves its buzzwords. Made up, nearly meaningless words and phrases dominate military press releases. Some of the buzzwords I love to hate: lethality, operational art, setting the conditions. What do these words even mean? If you want to express dominance, why hide behind these water-downed buzzwords?

To be successful in the civilian world you must leave those bad habits behind. Say what you mean clearly. Edit out passive voice. Use simple language.

Do the research. While military public affairs is excellent at implementing plans, they tend to spend less time on the research and evaluation. In the civilian world you can’t jump as easily from one plan to the next. The expectation is that a plan is well-researched with primary and secondary data gathered through formal and informal methods. Practitioners do focus groups to develop messaging, A/B testing to understand how to best engage online audiences and robust media assessment to track issues over time.

When a campaign ends, they can’t just tell their bosses it went great. They have to show meaningful metrics that reach back to the objectives of the campaign. Getting better at the bookends of a PR campaign and improving your research and evaluation skills will make your transition easier.

Get the quals. In the military we know all about checking boxes to get qualifications. There are specific milestones we work toward for upward mobility and prove our mettle. Use that same approach in a civilian career. The best qualification you can get to prove that you are an excellent and ethical PR practitioner is to become Accredited in Public Relations.


Dr. Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA, is a professor of public relations at San Diego State University. She maintains her connection to the practice as a drilling Navy Reserve public affairs officer. Every year she teaches active duty Marine CommStrat officers and Navy public affairs officers the civilian side of their craft as a part of the School of Journalism & Media Studies Military Public Affairs Master’s Program. To date, she has mentored more than 50 candidates in their APR and APR+M journeys.

PRSA’s APR Boot Camps, taking place Oct. 16-18 in San Diego and Nov. 20-22 in New Albany, Ohio, are three-day intensive courses for candidates to prepare for and be advanced through the Panel Presentation, and take the computer-based Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) or Accreditation in Public Relations + Military Communication (APR+M). The courses are designed to provide a setting that will meet the needs of busy professionals whose schedules don’t permit extensive preparation time.

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Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA

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