VA promotes social media use with new policy

The Veterans Affairs Department issued a social media policy Tuesday that “highly encouraged” the use of blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other Web-based media and urged VA employees to interact with the public online.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the new policy lays the groundwork for interaction with veterans through social media. “Veterans should have consistent and convenient access to reliable VA information [in] real time using social media — whether on a smartphone or a computer,” Shinseki said. “They also should be able to communicate directly with appropriate VA employees electronically.”

The new policy, VA Directive 6515: Use of Web-Based Collaboration Technologies, recognizes that “VA personnel represent a rich source of information for veterans.” It added, “VA employees are encouraged to interact with the public online as long as that interaction does not interfere with the employee’s performance of his or her official duties.”

VA first dipped into the social media universe in 2009 and now has more than 100 Facebook pages, more than 50 Twitter feeds, two blogs, a YouTube channel and a Flickr page. By the end of the year, VA said it expects to have an active Facebook page and Twitter feed for all 152 of its medical centers.

The department has posted more than 300 videos on YouTube and more than 9,000 photos on Flickr, which together have been viewed more than 1.1 million times. VA launched its first blog, VAntage Point, which actively solicits guest pieces from both employees and the public.

Brandon Friedman, the department’s director of online communications and an Army veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, said in an interview with Nextgovthat the new policy provides guidelines for more than 300,000 VA employees on how to use social media tools to interact with veterans and the public. Social media increasingly has become the way veterans learn about VA services, he said.

Though social media has been embraced by younger active-duty troops, older veterans are the largest users of VA sites such as Facebook, Friedman said. While that may seem counterintuitive, he notes that younger veterans do not have as much interest in health care as older ones. Forty percent of veterans who use VA Facebook pages are older than 45 and only 9 percent are younger than 25, he said.

The social media policy, signed by Roger Baker, chief information officer, and L. Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs and an Iraq war veteran, calls for designation of Web communications offices, content managers and collaboration service coordinators at VA facilities and organizations.

The Web offices will ensure that social media sites and servers comply with security and privacy guidelines, and that the content on the sites is current, accurate and relevant to VA’s mission. Web content managers will be accountable for information on social media sites run by their organization.

The collaboration service coordinators will be responsible for making sure sites are “optimized for VA’s needs to communicate, distribute information and content, engage the public, and capture new audiences through viral marketing,” the directive said. These coordinators also are to protect personal information on their sites and uphold standards to ensure that comments don’t contain vulgar language, personal attacks or spam.

The policy calls for Baker’s organization to establish departmentwide requirements and to oversee guidance for Web-based collaboration tools. Duckworth’s office will review and approve requests to launch social media sites and provide guidance for what constitutes acceptable content.

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