Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 1 2010 Contents 42 www.defence.gov.au/defencemagazine
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ThE LAST wOrD
RIGHT: Former Commanding Officer of Overwatch Battle Group (West) 4 Lieutenant Colonel Chris Websdane chats with
former Deputy Commander Joint Task Force 633 - Iraq Brigadier Brian Dawson during a tour of Camp Terendak, Tallil, in 2008.
Photo: CPL Michael Davis
LeFT: Former Director General Public Affairs Brigadier
Brian Dawson answers questions on the return of
Australian Defence Force explosives detection dog Sabi in
Afghanistan during a media doorstop at Russell Offices.
Photo: Kevin Piggott
Outgoing Director General of Defence Public Affairs Brigadier Brian Dawson is now heading for NATO
headquarters in Brussels on promotion to Major General. Before he left he talked to steve Ridgway
about his time in the Public Affairs hot seat.
Breaking from cover
BRIGADIER (BRIG) Brian Dawson applied to join the
Army during his Year 11 at Rochester High School,
in northern Victoria, at a time when Australians
were greatly divided over the Vietnam War. “At the
time, it was one of the most unfashionable careers
I could have chosen,” BRIG Dawson said.
The future infantry and special forces officer won a
scholarship to Duntroon in 1973 and, right from the
beginning, he and his classmates were taught the
military value of camouflage and concealment.
But almost 40 years later, in the world of Defence
public affairs, all that learning had to be turned on
its head. Like the redcoats of old, BRIG Dawson
was now obliged to stand up in public and take
whatever was coming.
“I was on duty in Basra in 2008 and the Chief of
Army rang to offer me the job,” BRIG Dawson
said. “I’d been an infantryman, then involved with
special forces for some of my career but never
public affairs — in the SAS you want the opposite.
The job offer was definitely a mould-breaker!
“I was prepared to take it on but, beyond media
training at Staff College and the normal formal
training, I knew it would mean acquiring a whole
new set of skills — and, after a working life not
telling people what we were up to, even a new
way of thinking.
“It meant I would be working closely with the
Defence senior leadership and in constant contact
with Minister’s offices. It would mean new insights
into the Department-Government relationship and
the ramifications of ‘big’ policy — as well as a
number of pitfalls for the unwary.
“Being DGPA has meant having to stay as current
as possible to meet the demands of the media’s
24 hour cycle, the need to be politically aware, but
also remembering I was a professional military
“But in many ways the job itself was essentially a
normal staff officer job. As DGPA, just like any staff
officer, I would need to be able to write and speak,
to process and prioritise information.
“Coming back from operations also meant I had a
good insight into the realities of the Middle East
— and Middle East operations remained the focus
of most big issues during my term in the DGPA job.
Defence Public Affairs is an integrated
organisation where military and civilians work
closely together — and there are more civilians
than military in the Canberra headquarters. But
protecting and promoting Defence’s reputation is
a 24/7 occupation, driven by the media’s own TV,
radio and newspaper deadlines, not to mention
the burgeoning social media such as Facebook,
Youtube and the blogosphere. No-one is ever
far from their mobiles, which are never, never
“I had worked in integrated uniformed and civilian
organisations before so the essentials remained
the same. The key is recognising the skills that
people have and leveraging off those skills,
leveraging off their strength. In my experience
most people want to do a good job and work best
when they are willing contributors to a shared
“In fact I’ve found the best advice in public affairs
was often counter-intuitive. The real art is to
recognise the linkages and effects of a particular
course of action that are not immediately apparent.
“But the changing character of the ADF
deployment to the Middle East Area of Operations
also enabled us to change the way we interfaced
with the media.
“Many of our operations in the early 2000s
involved our special forces so we couldn’t say
much anyway. But as more troops were committed,
we could become more open about the non-
special forces elements. We weren’t just trying
to win hearts and minds on the ground but be as
transparent as possible to the Australian public
through the media,” BRIG Dawson said.
“The men and women of the ADF have been
doing great work for a number of years in the
Middle East Area of Operations in general and
Afghanistan in particular. We needed to facilitate
telling their story as best we could.
“Rather than just talk about helping ordinary
Afghans, we could actually show more of what
Australians were doing on the ground, like
repairing mosques and schools, running health
clinics or building bridges. Embedding journalists
with units — letting them see for themselves —
was an important initiative, and I am sure it will be
developed in future.”
Internal Defence communications was also
part of BRIG Dawson’s remit. In late 2009 his
communications task group identified 51 ideas for
improving the situation.
“Defence-wide internal comms is very different
from soldiering in 3RAR. As a young soldier your
world is limited to your platoon and your mates.
Your immediate boss is a young lieutenant and,
way over there, is an impossibly old major aged at
“But, in the Ministerial Support and Public Affairs
organisation where I worked, the demographic was
the other way round. Only 10 staff out of 290 were
under 25 while 179 were aged 35 or over. Even
the way they communicated was different. The
oldest had learned to write using a proverbial slate
when Sir Robert Menzies was Prime Minister. The
youngest have never not had internet.
“Most organisations develop ‘stovepipes’ to define
areas of responsibility, accountability and cope
with complexity. These ‘stovepipes’ are there for
good reasons, but they inhibit communications. We
need to seek opportunities to tunnel through the
walls of the organisational stovepipes to enhance
communications and to develop a wider sense of
team. Building a common purpose is the key.
“Above all, our solutions should not make even
more work for people who already have a lot to do.
“A major aim now is to improve the user-
friendliness of Defence’s internal website which
is currently organised more by organisation than
by function. Information can be hard to find unless
you already knew where to look — a structural
Catch-22. We must make our intranet easier to use
so key information is more easily available.
“Work on this has already started. I hope that
in the coming months things will be much easier
“But, while the net now has a key role, it can never
be the only communication system. There will
always need to be meetings, management by
walking around, even simple posters in the break-
Europe will certainly bring more changes for the
Dawson family but there are positives they are all
looking forward to.
“My son Callum wants to go walking in the
Alps, my daughter Caitlin wants to see European
circuses, my wife Jacqui wants to shop in Paris
and I will be seeing a bit more of my family in
The job of Australian Military Representative in
Brussels will involve working closely with NATO
members on areas of shared interest especially
Afghanistan. NATO is bilingual: English or French
are both spoken. Documents have both English and
French versions. “Unfortunately for me, I failed 4th
Form French, but I will now need to make an effort
to learn quickly,” BRIG Dawson said.
“There will be lots of meetings, lots of liaison and
reporting back to Russell, and lots of dinners,”
BRIG Dawson said. “Developing and maintaining
relationships with the representatives of NATO
countries will be an important part of the job.”
The former Chairman of Defence Aussie Rules
(from 2001 to 2007) is also hoping to see some
top-level sport, but he might have to miss out on
his favourite game for a while. “I will need to track
down Aussie Rules on cable somewhere,” he said.
with units - letting them
see for themselves - was
an important initiative,
developed in future”
- Former Director General Public Affairs
Brigadier Brian Dawson
ABOVe: Brigadier Brian Dawson outside the headquarters at
Camp Victory in Baghdad during 2008.
Photo: Capt Cameron Jamieson
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