Late Breaking News
VA Wants to be Their Facebook ‘Friend and Veterans ‘Like’ It
By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON — In an effort to present a kinder, gentler and more responsive side of the VA, agency leaders are seeking to engage more veterans via social media. The hope is that, by leveraging popular online platforms, VA will be able to better connect and respond more immediately to veterans and their needs.
“VA has been working with social media since 2008,” said Brandon Friedman, VA’s director of online communications and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It started off with just a couple of Facebook pages and a YouTube channel set up by VHA, but in the last three-and-a-half years it’s really taken off.”
In late 2009, after experimenting with social media for about a year, VA launched a Facebook page, YouTube video channel, and Flickr photo-sharing page to post images. Shortly after, VBA, VHA and the National Cemetery Administration launched individual Facebook sites.
In early 2010, VA developed the strategy even further and, by the end of 2011, saw VA roll out Facebook pages for all 151 of its medical centers. Although Facebook is little more than a relatively simple and static social media platform, VA has been using it and other platforms to improve contact with veterans.
“We realized very early on that veterans tend to associate their local VAMC with the VA,” Friedman said. “They don’t want to get their information from a Washington bureaucracy. They see their medical center and associate it with VA. They want to get their information at the local level.”
Making it easier and more comfortable for veterans to find help at VA is what the department’s social-media strategy is all about, Friedman said. “The strategy revolves around leveraging this new technology to get the right information to the right veteran at the right time. That idea is what drives us. What we don’t want to do is use new tools just because they’re new and people think they’re cool or because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do.”
For example, before the fall and spring college semesters, VA might post updates or “tweet” about the G.I. Bill, because those are the times when veterans are looking to enroll in classes and need that information.
“We also talk about things at the medical center level,” Friedman said. “If there are events going on or if there’s a closure due to weather, we can tell veterans. We had difficulty getting that information out efficiently and effectively just two or three years ago.”
Veterans seem to be responding to VA’s attempts at social media interaction. Vantage Point — the VA blog — gets 200 to 300 comments on each blog post. If the comment warrants, VA officials respond. They also respond to comments made through Facebook or Twitter.
“Some VAMCs have done Twitter-chats with veterans,” Friedman said. “The Maryland VAMC has done a regular Facebook chat.”
VA is in the early stages of the heavily-interactive forms of social media, but officials say they hope the groundwork has been laid for growth.
“We provide guidance on the setup of [facility’s sites] and the look and feel of things. And we identify someone at each hospital to serve as a social media manager,” explained Matt Rutherford, MBA, VHA’s chief of web communications. “But each VAMC is responsible for the content they’re pushing out on their sites.”
While the number of staff dedicated to social media varies, depending upon the resources available at each hospital, most have staff to monitor sites so response can come quickly from public affairs officers, customer service representatives and patient advocates.
As for patients seeking medical advice, this appears to be more common on VA’s national sites than the local ones, with patients seeking details about various treatment programs.
“For example, we had a question the other day from a veteran asking if he would get reminders from VA’s ophthalmology program about upcoming appointments,” Friedman said.
“We also deal with suicidal ideation,” Rutherford added. “A veteran who is not in a great place will come on the Facebook page and say something that’s a cause for concern. In those cases, we’ve stepped in, contacted the VA crisis line and had them reach out to the veterans. And we’ve been pretty successful at it.”
The crisis line itself is one area where interactive social media technology has taken root, offering a live-chat option where veterans can engage in a real-time dialogue online, rather than over the phone. More than 20,000 veterans have benefited from the live-chat service in the two years it has been active.