Looking for friends in all the right places: VA expands its Facebook presence

Veterans Affairs is ramping up its social media savvy to reach more vets and their families.

The Veterans Affairs Department passed an important milestone Wednesday in its use of social media to build relationships veterans: All 152 of its medical centers are now connected with veterans, their families and the public on Facebook.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said he viewed the widespread use of Facebook by VA hospitals as a transformative event that changes the way the department communicates with veterans. He added that veterans helped provide the impetus for VA's embrace of social media. "Veterans and their families told us from the beginning that they want to engage and they want relevant information delivered at the local level. By leveraging Facebook, the department continues to expand access to VA and embrace transparency and two-way conversation," Shinseki said.

Veterans Affairs dipped into social media with one Facebook page in 2008 and now has its own YouTube channel, 64 Twitter feeds, a Flickr page and the veteran-run VAntage Point blog. This June, VA formalized its social media policy, which encourages employees to use digital media to interact with the public, particularly veterans.

The department currently has more than 345,000 combined Facebook subscribers. VA's main Facebook page has more than 154,000 fans and its medical centers have a combined subscribership of more than 69,000. The department plans to continue expanding its Facebook presence as well as bring Twitter to every VA medical center.

VA clinicians can't discuss the specific health concerns of individual veterans on Facebook, but that doesn't prevent staff from monitoring its sites closely each day. The department's crisis line counselors have successfully intervened on Facebook in cases where veterans have suggested suicidal thoughts or emotional crises.

Brandon Friedman, VA's director of online communications and an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said social media helps the department get the right information to the right person at the right time. Veterans of the current wars use social media, Friedman said, "so that's where we need to be."