By any measure, life in the military is quite different than it was decades ago. The same can be said of the effort to provide returning veterans with the services they need.
A lot has changed over the years for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The challenge became how best to communicate that to veterans living in Florida and those returning from active duty.
“Our message to them is ‘This is not your father’s VA.’ Much has changed over the last 12 years,” said Steve Murray, the department’s communications director and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
The department, first established 23 years ago, found that it needed a new approach to reaching the state’s 1.6 million veterans and informing them of the assistance available. Only 260,000 are receiving service-related compensation or pensions from the federal government’s Veterans Administration, and fewer than 670,000 were enrolled in the VA health-care system.
To address the situation, the FDVA allocated some of its funding in 2012 to re-examine its mission statement, its vision and how best to reach younger veterans, especially women service members. The department hired Sachs Media Group to handle the project and helped build awareness of the FDVA brand and what it does.
Michelle Ubben, Sachs’ chief operating officer, said the firm began by examining the basics — how the FDVA communicates its message, connects with its audience and how to broaden that reach.
“We talked about the fact that Florida veterans are leaving millions of dollars on the table. It’s long been recognized in Florida that we send in more tax dollars than we draw down in federal benefits,” she said of Florida, which has the nation’s third-largest veterans population.
The PR campaign has been so effective, it earned professional honors last month from the Florida Public Relations Association. Sachs won the prestigious Dick Pope All Florida Grand Golden Image Award for the FDVA’s “Honoring Those Who Served U.S.” campaign.
“We went through a very comprehensive process of looking at all their communications tools, both online and in print,” Ubben said. The various audiences were studied as well, which identified three — Vietnam War vets, women and young or returning veterans — as those with the most potential for greater engagement with the department.
They were also the ones that the agency had historically had the least success in reaching for various reasons.
“They are motivated by differ events,” Murray noted. “They have different needs. They have different barriers to communication.” Vietnam veterans tend to be skeptical of government services and may have had a previous bad experience with the VA.
Those veterans are most likely to trust mainly other vets from that era as reliable sources of information. Messages aimed at that group are delivered by a Florida veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who served in Vietnam.
Women who served in the military don’t necessarily identify themselves as veterans, as men do, and weren’t aware that the VA is now providing health care and others services tailored for their needs.
Colleen Krepstekies, a former Army captain who is now public affairs manager at the FDVA, saw the very deliberate effort by the Veterans Administration to reach women veterans. “I think there are a lot of opportunities for outreach to them,” she said, adding those efforts here are off to a good start.
Among the tools Sachs recommended for improving the PR effort are a redesigned website that is easier to navigate, the use of social media and even an FDVA digital application for Apple and Android mobile phones and tablets that helps get the word out.
“If there is one key success in the agency, it’s Facebook. The numbers are through the roof,” Murray said.
As a result of the PR campaign, the FDVA achieved a 68-percent increase in services provided to “never-before-reached” veterans in the three-month period following launch. It was up 74 percent compared to the same period the year before.
There have been more than 1,400 downloads of the mobile app.
Page views on the department’s website went up by 8,000 per month, while the visitors were able to more easily locate what they were looking for. “Our traffic is way up, but the amount of time that people are spending on the site is much shorter because they are finding the information more quickly,” Ubben noted.
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY THE TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT ON SEPT. 15, 2013)