Experience is the best mentor: Rivers Johnson talks experience and mentorship in Army Public Affairs


Col. Rivers Johnson (Courtesy Photo)
Col. Rivers Johnson
(Courtesy Photo)

Army officers selected to work in the public affairs branch often have little to no experience about the job. The writing, speaking and public posture for the organizations they represent can be intimidating, and at times, overwhelming. At times like these, leaning on those with experience are the best option for success.

Rivers Johnson, Jr. a retired Army Colonel and Army Public Affairs Officer, serves as mentor and educator to many PAOs across all branches of the military. His experience as an Infantryman and PAO, coupled with his readiness to share knowledge, sets him apart as an expert and mentor in the Army Public Affairs branch.

Public affairs soldiers and officers are sometimes referred to as the unit photographer or “the media” by those how are not accustomed to working with them. The truth is the job of a PAO and the relationships they are required to build and maintain with media personnel are important. It is equally important that soldiers do not get these relationships confused with what they see on TV, especially for those performing the job.

“Public Affairs Officers are a combat multiplier,” said Johnson. “Meaning you can enhance the success of a mission or situation by effectively communicating whatever message you are trying to convey whether you are in a garrison environment or if you are in combat operations.”

Johnson added that PAOs simplify the complex and ideally have an important role in that they understand and sense issues before they happen.

Johnson was quoted in several articles containing high-profile military cases to include the Fort Bragg sniper shooting, the rescue of Army private Jessica Lynch, and a massive global cyber attack on U.S. government and U.N. computers in 2011. He even appeared in a documentary on General Colin Powell.

Johnson’s experience as a PAO spans a variety of tactical and strategic public affairs assignments to include the White House, Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Corps and Division levels, the Joint Task Force level, and Detachment level.

Johnson said his most challenging position was as the Public Affairs officer for the United States Cyber Command at the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Md.

Johnson stated that what made the job challenging was the fact that his boss, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, was not only the commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, a brand new command started in May 2010, but also the director of the NSA and the chief of the Central Security Services.

“It was also the fastest job I ever ramped up for in terms of knowing what the unit did and the key players involved,” said Johnson. “I also had the highest security clearance I’ve ever had in my military career as a counter-intelligence polygraph security clearance was required for the job in addition to having a TS/SCI clearance.”

PAOs across the Department of Defense are required to attend the Public Affairs Qualification Course at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md.

Johnson, who now serves as the chief of the International Military Student Office at DINFOS, takes time to meet with students and share his wealth of knowledge by giving his personal contact information and emailing a public affairs professional development packet to be used througout the officers’ careers. He also mentors by phone at least twice a week.

“COL Johnson has had a positive, inspiring and motivating impact on my career,” said Army Lt. Col. Catina Barnes-Ricks, U.S. Army Central PAO. “He is quite a professional and … the epitome of a public affairs expert.”

Group photo
Col. Rivers Johnson (center) stands with officers attending the Public Affairs Qualification Course at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md. during a mentoring session.

“One thing that has always stood out to me that he said is to make yourself a well-rounded PAO,” said Dianna Pegeuese, an operations officer for 314th Press Camp Headquarters in Birmingham, Al. “Read, read, read and write, write, write.”

Pegeuese is working on Johnson’s recommended reading list.

Johnson’s advice to current PAOs: “Write & get published. Writing is the cornerstone of what we do as public affairs officers. If you are not a strong writer, then become one with additional training, schooling and on-the-job training.”

Johnson also encourages PAOs to find a mentor or several mentors and listen to what they have to say, study the art of leadership and learn to listen.

“I can’t say that enough times,” says Johnson.

Johnson is currently working on two books: one book about leadership and career lessons, and another on effective public affairs.