Does the army prepare you for a career in PR?

Like many people, I’ve always felt concerned for those who leave our armed forces to find work in Civvy Street. Lots of brave, intelligent and highly motivated individuals leave the military and too many of them do not manage to obtain suitable employment and probably are not given enough help by us all to re-integrate into British society.

A quick look at the stats on homelessness in the UK and suicide statistics amongst ex-military personnel puts this story into a very serious context.

Finding work is a critical part of this. If you enjoy your job you feel motivated, you feel confident and you have money in your pocket.

One example of a person who has left the army and has gone on to have a very successful career is Chris Talago, EMEA CEO of Waggener Edstrom. I recently caught up with Chris to discuss how his life in the army prepared him for a career in public relations.

Ben Smith: Chris what did you do in the army and did it prepare you for a career in PR?

Chris Talago: I was an infantry solder. I joined the army aged 17 because it was all I ever wanted to do. I grew up wanting to be a solder. At its most basic, the skills I learnt were infantry specific. The army gives you lots of skills for a life in business and from that therefore lots of skills that are useful in communications. But in terms of specialist skills, no.

At its bluntest I learnt how to carry a pack and carry a rifle. I think one of my learnings as I went through my career both in the army and later in communications was, it’s a good idea to think about what skills I’m likely to need in the future much more, because the army was all I ever wanted to do, I never put much thought into what I wanted to do afterwards.

BS: When did you leave the army?

CT: I left when I was about 28. So I did 9 years. I’d just got to the stage where I was behind the desk much more. And I thought if I was behind a desk anyway, I might as well do that in Civvy Street. I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. You can predict the type of jobs you will be doing in the army, assuming you’re successful, in 5/10 years’ time. And I’d reached the stage where I asked myself – “do I want that life?”

And “No I don’t” was my answer. So I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I did know that I didn’t want to continue in the army. So I resigned and that was the forcing function for me to work out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

BS: Did you see active service?

CT: Yes I did two tours of Northern Ireland. We almost went to Gulf War 1. We were sitting in our desert combats in January on a very cold Hercules aircraft at Inverness airport. But we were stood down because we were not required.

BS: So you were in the plane ready to go, but you didn’t actually go?

CT: Exactly, they were expecting a lot of casualties in the first Gulf war which thankfully never happened so we were stood down.

BS: You worked out you didn’t want to work in the army so then you resigned. But how does that all work? Normally when you resign you have to plan for what you want to do next, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the case with you?

CT: I get a lot of questions from people who are planning their career, asking what they need to do next. What do I need to do now to anticipate three jobs time? And I’m not the right guy to talk to about that. I think there is a great danger in trying to plan your career to the nth degree because life doesn’t work like that. And I don’t think it’s always healthy to plan it to that level of detail.

BS: Partly because not everything works out the way you expect it to?

CT: Yeah. But also you’re less open to opportunities than you would otherwise be.

But to answer your question, what happens in the army is that you resign and you have a year’s notice period. The army is very good at trying to resettle you after you leave. I did a number of courses, got involved with a number of groups. I mean, I’d never written a CV before.

Then for the last 3 months they let you go. You’re still employed by the army but you use that time to actively interview, get back to the UK, find a job and find a house.

All that kind of stuff that you’ve never had to do before. Originally I wanted to live in Edinburgh. I had a number of friends up there but I couldn’t find a job. So I moved down to London and stayed with a mate and spent a glorious summer doing not very much.

Then I ended up in an unemployment office when the army stopped paying me – doing a few odds and ends and applied to a whole bunch of different jobs – from project management, property development, security. There was a job in telesales that I hated; I think I did that for about two days.

If I’m honest I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just applying for a bunch of different stuff.

BS: And is that pretty normal from someone coming out of the army? It sounds like you didn’t, but you might of had children and a partner to support so that would be a very nervous time?

CT: Absolutely. I have friends in the army now who have commitments and part of the reason they are still in the army is because they are nervous about that transition. The army invest a lot of time and money into helping you with that move from army life to civilian career work but it’s a well-known statistic that the proportion of homeless people is disproportionately high of those from a services background. And that’s a very sad statistic – these people previously had a very good career.

And I’m very passionate about veteran rehabilitation. Whether that means mental rehabilitation, physical rehabilitation or social. Especially when you consider the amount and type of active service that’s been going on over the past few years, mentally that takes a huge toll on people.

Assimilating them back into society, let alone back into a job, is a huge challenge.

BS: Yes and something that as a nation, we need to do better I’m sure. Just coming back to your story, because you’re a micro PR case study we’ve got here. What happened to you? Did you just get lucky?

CT: Yeah, pretty much. I applied for a job with Racal Electronics as a PR officer for their defence electronics arm. The last job I had was as a signals officer for my infantry regiment and as part of that job I used a whole bunch of Racal equipment. So when I went for the job I was able to say I have used all the products already – I know all about them. So I got lucky.

The product knowledge gave me a way in. But also, as the products were targeted at the military, there were a decent proportion of ex-military people working at Racal at the time. The head of communications was a guy called Richard Poston, who was ex Royal navy. He said (something like) “I can teach you about PR much faster than I can teach you about the products” – so he hired me!

And during this time I learnt about PR. I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time, because I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but I had an incredibly good apprenticeship, it was brilliant. The guys around me really knew what they were doing.

BS: Was that a formal apprenticeship?

CT: No. There were courses that I went on but it wasn’t a formal apprenticeship. A lot of it was watching, feeling, doing. I was learning my trade. I still think of that as one of the most pivotal moments in my life after the army.

BS: It’s hard to know isn’t it – if you hadn’t had got that job would there have been others?

CT: I guess the honest answer is - who knows!

I think people do find it very difficult joining from the services.

As a profession one of the things I’m passionate about is social diversity, as well as ensuring those people who are looking for a second career think of communications as a potential opportunity. I really hadn’t given any thought to public relations as a career, I just stumbled into it. And I think as a profession we’re missing a huge trick if we’re not appealing to those highly skilled, highly motivated people.

BS: It’s probably one for another day but there is a whole debate about whether the best PR people are professionally qualified. You could argue that one either way.

CT: I have a view on that. I have no formal communications qualifications and I see a huge amount of very academically qualified people who are bloody useless. I think it’s more to do with the softer qualities of common sense, drive, initiative, emotional intelligence and the ability to read a room.

If you are an employer and would like to contact motivated, ambitious and intelligent ex services personnel, below is a list of organisations that Chris has recommended:

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