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Applying Military Info Ops Skills to the Civilian Workforce

Podcast featuring Wes O’Donnell, Editor, AMU Edge and
Lawrence Dietz, Colonel (retired), U.S. Army Reserve; Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies

Military servicemembers have skills and training that can be extremely useful in the civilian workforce, however, it’s challenging to figure out how to translate those skills to the commercial sector. In this episode, Wes O’Donnell talks to AMU professor, retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel Larry Dietz, about his military service and experience in psychological warfare, cyber warfare and information operations. Hear how servicemembers must work to define the hard and soft skills they learned in the military including the ability to identify credible sources of information, make decisions under pressure, and present complex situations in a direct and simplified way.

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Wes O’Donnell: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wes O’Donnell. Today we’re going to talk about military skills in the commercial sector, specifically how information superiority can give you a competitive advantage in the civilian world.

My guest today is Colonel Lawrence Dietz. Lawrence, or as he prefers, Larry, is a nationally recognized expert in psychological warfare, cyber warfare, and information operations. Larry is a former military intelligence officer with the U.S. Army, my own branch, and was at one time the officer in charge of strategic intelligence with the 7th PSYOP group, as well as the commander of the 12th PSYOP Battalion and deputy commander of the NATO SFOR Combined Joint Information Campaign Task Force in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Larry was also an information operations officer with the United States Special Operations Command, and he is the author of the authoritative blog on psychological operations, the PSYOP Regimental Blog. Larry is also an adjunct faculty member teaching within the intelligence studies program right here at American Military University. Larry, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Larry Dietz: Wes, thanks for the invitation. Appreciate it very much.

Wes O’Donnell: Let’s start our conversation by talking about information operations. Larry, can you define what IO is for our audience?

Larry Dietz: Sure. To me, information operations (or IO) is among the most interesting of military functional areas because it requires both hard and soft skills. While some of the skills require some kind of transitionary English to get into the commercial sector for military IO, others do not. I define IO as the fire control center, the targeting officer, for all weapons that don’t fire ammunition. This includes all non-kinetic weapons systems. The J39 or the IO officer, orchestrates all these non-kinetic resources, such as psychological operations, jamming – electronic warfare, and cyber war. The military employs information operations to gain and maintain information superiority over the enemy.

Wes O’Donnell: So I could make a joke here about military intelligence, but I’m going to really resist the urge, but the military lives or dies on information. What would be the commercial equivalent of information superiority?

Larry Dietz: Well, the commercial equivalent of information superiority is brand reputation. So that when I think of a beverage, I automatically think of something that appeals to me that that company has spent a lot of money. For example, Snoop Dogg. While I’m not a big fan of Corona beer, I happen to be somewhat of a fan of Snoop Dogg. And so Corona beer has now gotten information superiority in my mind when I think of beer on a beach.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah. You know what? That’s fascinating to me because when you talk about branding, there are so many other ways to brand. You can co-brand with another brand. You can have brand extensions, licensing, but you did mention early on hard skills and soft skills when talking about information operations. What did you mean by soft skills?

Larry Dietz: Well, soft skills are the ability, for example, to interact with people. And so if you were in a tactical Military Information Support Operations, acronym to MISO, M-I-S-O team, you would be expected to go to a foreign location and interact with the local population. Now, if you’re fortunate enough to have language skills, you’d be able to do that directly. Otherwise, you have to understand the soft skill of working through an interpreter.

These kinds of soft skills are very difficult to teach, the influence skill, the ability to work with an interpreter. If you work for an international corporation—I used to work for Symantec Corporation and I toured Asia on behalf of the company—I had to understand that when I spoke directly, I would look at who I’m talking to, but I would wait for the interpreter to translate, interpret what I had to say into the local language, with the appropriate nuances. So the ability to convince people, the ability to use an interpreter. Wes, those are what I mean by soft skills.

Wes O’Donnell: One of those things you don’t really think about that when you travel overseas and there is a language barrier that you have to still maintain the advantage when it comes to negotiating or getting information from some of these other organizations, some of these other people, and then realizing that you’d have to be able to adapt and pivot your military skills that you’ve learned over into these soft skills, these human skills, out here in the civilian world.

Larry Dietz: It’s also true, Wes, that you have to go the other way too. So if you are an army reservist, for example, like I was a career Army reservist, I brought to the military my commercial skills. So a very real scenario is, you are deployed to a place where you’ve never been, a foreign country and you are a part of the information operations working group. And part of your job is to determine what TV stations, radio stations, and traditional publications, social media, of course, which of these make the most sense for the Combined Joint Task Force to work with? Now, if you, as a military type, go to the intelligence officer and ask them, “Who owns the radio stations, the TV stations,” they are going to be clueless.

So you have to bring to bear, in this case, some commercial expertise, which is “I understand that these traditional media want people to buy advertising. And so they have media kits. The media kits tell me all about the publications and maybe give me some background on the owners.” And so I think being in the IO world, the PSYOP world requires you to combine these types of assets.

And let me just mention, talked about soft skills. There are some hard skills. One of the hard skills that is becoming increasingly more important is video. And so, if you were going to try and influence people, you have to understand how videos are made. And so if you were a career public affairs person, public affairs officer, public affairs NCO with DoD, and you go to DINFOS, as an example, those skills are directly transferable into the commercial sector.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, I think that’s fascinating to me, at least in my world. I’m always thinking about what skills veterans can take from the military and use in the civilian world? But what you just said, works the other way also. Sometimes you need to bring in skills from the commercial sector and the civilian world to accomplish military goals.

And if some of our listeners are like me, I joined the military right out of high school, I didn’t have any commercial skills. I was a stupid 18 year old, fresh out of high school. And maybe that’s why the officers who have done at least four years of college get paid the big bucks in the military because at least they have some interaction with the civilian world before joining the military. I should say, becoming commissioned in the military as an officer.

Larry Dietz: Let me build on that for a second, Wes. So we’ve talked about hard skills. We’ve talked about soft skills. Let me also talk about interpersonal characteristics that we take for granted in the military that are tremendous assets in the commercial sector. And those are integrity, discipline, and decision-making under pressure and under uncertainty.

In the military we are always responsible for the person next to us and the people we’re working with. We just take it for granted that it’s a team effort and I’m going to do what I need to do to back up the other people on my team. I also know that I have to have the discipline to do those things that I may not really want to do, but they’re part of the mission. Unfortunately, my personal background, I’m not a very athletic person. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I was always the last kid to be selected for any kind of athletic endeavor.

Fast forward, I’m a Colonel and I’m on a weekend with the 351st Civil Affairs Command and the Commanding General decides it’d be great fun to go rappelling. I hated that. I hated every minute of it. And so when the general said, “Why did you do it? You didn’t have to do it.” I said, “You know, sir, with all due respect, if you asked my troops to do something, I’m going to have to do it myself. I may not like it, but I have the discipline to do things I don’t like.”

So in the commercial sector, for example, if you’re a sales person, one of the most difficult, most demanding, demeaning activities is cold calling, where you try and go from one person to the next person and try and get them interested in your product and service. That is very, very hard work. And there is an incredibly high level of rejection.

And so having the discipline to go through things you don’t like to do, but just move ahead, that’s an incredibly big asset. And in today’s workforce, it’s my personal experience that any kind of discipline is makes you stand out above the crowd.

Thirdly, in the military, we often make decisions under time pressure and in a climate of uncertainty. When you’re in the commercial sector, you may be able to do that a lot better than your peers. And there are some fields of endeavor that require that. So, for example, if you are a trial attorney, you will be asked to present your client’s case and you may be faced with unexpected obstacles in the form of evidence presented by the other side. But having the military experience of decision-making under pressure and under uncertainty, you’ll be able to succeed where others will not.

Wes O’Donnell: I absolutely love that. And when I was in the Air Force, there was this F-16 that was performing operations against the Islamic state over Iraq. And this F-16 suffered a fuel malfunction where he could only sustain 500 pounds of fuel at any given moment. And he was going to have to eject over ISIS-controlled territory. It was back in 2015.

So what happened? The crew of a KC-135 tanker, essentially a flying gas tank, stepped up to the plate and performed aerial refueling every 15 minutes, all the way back to base. Now, aerial refueling is already an endeavor that’s filled with risk and takes nerves of steel with these nerve-wracking conditions. To do it every 15 minutes is the very definition of being able to keep that composure and keep that ability to make decisions under pressure and under uncertainty.

Larry Dietz: Let me just go in another direction here. So I spent a lot of time in high-tech marketing and so a typical organization will have a marketing function, a sales function, a public relations function, an analyst relations function, and a competitive and market intelligence function.

In marketing, we tend to think of that in terms of advertising. We tend to think of that in terms of what does the product packaging look like? In the PSYOP world, there is an incredible amount of print and video products. So the skills you learn to make a leaflet, to make a poster, those things are all part of marketing. In terms of the tactical niche of tactical PSYOP teams, going out into the countryside trying to get someone to believe what you’re telling them, trying to stay out of the way of an operation, that’s direct selling, that’s salesmanship.

Public relations is the ability to work with traditional and social media. And there are various things that you do. You can write things that get to the media. You can tweet things that get to the media. You can post things on Facebook and you can also speak to the media directly.

If I put in the little pitch, one of the ways I’ve learned how to interact with the media, Wes, is I’m a public affairs volunteer with the Red Cross. Now being a volunteer with the Red Cross is really a very good thing. And the Red Cross provides training and opportunity that you might not get elsewhere. And I have built on my military experience to go with a minimum amount of stuff to live in what the Red Cross refers to as a “staff shelter.” We would refer to it as “barracks” in the olden days.

And work in an environment where I’ve worked in several wildfires where the smoke was just not really very pleasant and I’m the person there representing the Red Cross talking to the media about what’s happening in the various shelters and what is the Red Cross doing to alleviate the suffering. And that kind of training is also available in the media.

Once again, we talked about information superiority and part of that is you know more about the other guys information, how they get it, what they do with it, how they give it out, than he does. And you are able to make better decisions because you were inside the loop of that.

And so being an intelligence-trained individual is also helpful in the commercial sector. There is in fact a society, it used to be called the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, acronym, SCIP, S-C-I-P, which was founded by a retired intelligence officer, in fact, I think a warrant officer. And many companies, particularly high-tech companies, have pretty robust competitive intelligence efforts. And if you have been an intelligence person in the military, you have a leg up on those jobs as well.

[Podcast: Insight into Private Sector Intelligence Careers]

Wes O’Donnell: We’re back. We’ve been chatting with Colonel Larry Dietz about info ops. Let’s get back to it. I’d like to ask your opinion on this. Today we’re just drowning in data. There’s just so much information. How do you, as somebody who served in the military, now is out in the civilian world, how do you generate revenue for your company when you’re drinking from the firehose of publicly available information?

Larry Dietz: Well, Wes, I think one of the things you have to do is you have to take alternative perspectives and alternative views and match them against each other and then perform your own analysis. In the olden days, in Vietnam, for example, they used ARDF, aerial radio direction finding, and this would involve one or more aircraft taking a fix on a transmitter and then changing positions, taking another fix. And where all of these lines intersected, that’s where the transmitter was, that was ground truth, if you will, on the transmitter.

So, in today’s world, there’s just an awful lot of sources and you have to understand their bent. So for example, I get The New York Times because I’m an expatriate Brooklynite and I like to know what’s happening in New York City. Their perspective on news in New York City is probably less biased than the rest of their news.

When I’m deployed out on a disaster, for example, one of the things I have to do is I have to understand what’s being transmitted on local radio. Local FM radio is a very trusted source of information, even in today’s world of social media. So let me give you an example.

My boss said that, “You’re the PSYOP guy. We’re having some issues with this radio station. A lot of people are saying just information that’s incorrect. Could you help out?” I said, “Counter propaganda boss. I can do that.” And so I called into the radio station live and I introduced myself. I said, “Hi, I’m Larry Dietz. I’m a public affairs officer with The Red Cross. I understand your listeners have some questions.” And so I listened in and I answered questions live.

And, in fact, the station invited me in for a formal interview into their studio the next day. On my way into the studio, I went into the shelters, The Red Cross shelters that were on the way to the radio station, and anyone, any one of the half a dozen people I walked by that had a radio were tuned to that community radio station that I was going to be interviewed on.

So, you have to understand what sources are credible for your particular type of information and you have to recognize, in my opinion, at least that social media may be an intelligence indicator of volume. The number of tweets about a particular situation will certainly indicate interest and you can see those tweets following a bell curve. And as the tweets fall off, then there’s of course less interest in the disaster or the situation. So you have to look at each of the different information sources as to what’s their perspective and how they interrelate to the big picture.

Now, the other skill, which I acquired in the military, which is relevant to your question, Wes, is taking all of this stuff and putting in a format that your customer for the information can understand. Whether the customer is your civilian boss, your manager, your vice president, or whether your customer is a two-star general.

And as the producer and director of this information production, if you will, you have to be creative enough to cast that information in such a way that your audience gets it. And that’s a skill I think you learned in the military because you’re faced with very complex situations and you have to sort them out and present them in a much more direct and simplified manner.

Wes O’Donnell: I think you’ll agree, just recognizing the value of information itself as an asset. There are a lot of folks that don’t give it a second thought. But you did mention earlier that psychological operations most closely relates to marketing and sales. So just curious where you think the difference between the two is?

Larry Dietz: Well, this is Larry Dietz’s opinion, this is of course not the DOD’s opinion. So sales to me is the direct act of one-on-one convincing individuals to do something or to refrain from doing something. So in the sense of PSYOP, you want to convince the enemy to surrender, you want to convince adversaries to possibly come over to your side. And you do that with key leader engagements, that’s personal selling to me.

Whereas marketing is a lot more passive. Marketing might be a story that is about a medical mission that the civil affairs people orchestrated in a particular town and the write-up of that story shows that the task force is there to help the people and support the people. And so that’s a form of marketing to me.

Public relations, where the commanding general talks to the media and gives an interview with that world famous newspaper, the Fayetteville Observer, that’s part of marketing where brochures are made up to talk about this, that, or the other thing, or leaflets or posters, that’s collateral material. That’s all part of marketing.

Wes O’Donnell: There’s one other aspect of marketing that is under the marketing umbrella and that’s public affairs or public relations. And you mentioned that you’re the public affairs officer of The Red Cross where you volunteer. But let’s talk about PR in the military versus the commercial sector. What are the key differences?

Larry Dietz: There are actually more similarities than there are differences. So, for example, the public affairs officer, like the chaplain and the JAG has direct access to the boss. In the commercial sector, that’s not necessarily the case. The vice president of public affairs may be one that reports directly to the CEO, as was the case when I first joined Symantec. Or public affairs might be part of the marketing department and report to the VP of marketing and not necessarily have CEO access. There’s also probably a different approval chain in the public affairs section of a military organization then there is in a company, although there are similarities.

Public affairs in a foreign country, let’s say Spain, it’s pretty independent. They don’t necessarily have to get everything okayed by public affairs back at the corporate headquarters, wherever it may be. If a military task force deploys into a foreign country, even it’s commanded by a four-star like the stabilization force in NATO, the senior representative in the country for the U.S. government is the ambassador of the chargé d’affaires, not the military. And so the military public affairs must nest under the State Department when deployed. And that’s perhaps a little different than the commercial sector.

Wes O’Donnell: So if we have a listener out there who’s wanting to get into public affairs, but let’s say they were in the infantry or their job in the military was the farthest thing from public affairs. How would you recommend they start their search out in the civilian world?

Larry Dietz: Well, let’s assume for a moment they’re discharged. With the thanks of a grateful nation you’ve got a GI Bill or equivalent today. You can certainly take courses. The local community college is not a bad place. You can volunteer for nonprofit organizations where you will work under the supervision and work with more experienced public affairs people and learn it there while serving your community, which is something military people like to do.

In my case, I got an undergraduate in marketing. I worked in a large company, Symantec, but I never worked in public affairs. And it wasn’t until I joined The Red Cross that I had training and experience in public affairs, which I’ve carried over in some of my consulting assignments. So those are two places to go.

Wes O’Donnell: Very good. Well, Larry, this has been such a great conversation. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Larry Dietz: I would like to add that should you go out there and interview in the commercial sector, leave your acronyms at home. I’m an instructor here at American Military University, and I can’t tell you how many times I go through student work and I say, “Spell out an acronym the first time you use it.”

Also be very conscious that your written word is a picture of you. So make sure you proofread or have somebody else proofread anything you’re going to send to an important customer or prospective employer for that matter.”

Wes O’Donnell: Okay. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for sharing your expertise today for our audience. And to our listeners, thank you for joining us as always, stay frosty.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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