Under congressional pressure, VA Secretary James B. Peake has dropped the department's longstanding ban and is about to issue its first request for proposals seeking an agency to develop communications to reach the nation's 24 million living veterans.
Spending yet to be announced
Still undetermined, said one department official, is how much the government will spend to advertise veterans' benefits.
For years, the agency -- which was known as the Veterans Administration until it became a cabinet-level department -- has been reaching out to veterans to explain its benefits and services. Currently 7 million are signed up for veterans' health care, and 3.6 million veterans and their spouses receive some sort of allowance, often for injury suffered while on duty, but more are eligible. Other programs help in home ownership.
That outreach, however, has been limited to brochures, letters, posters, public service campaigns, and, in recent years, the internet. The agency has never paid to place ads, and has, since at least the late 1970s, formally banned paying for advertising.
Oblivious to benefits
In recent years, that ban has drawn complaints from congress members and veterans' groups, who say veterans entitled to services are missing out. "There are millions of veterans across the country who could be getting a college education, buying their own home or getting quality health care when they are sick -- but they are not, because they don't think they can afford it and the VA hasn't told them otherwise," Vanessa Williamson, policy director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told a panel of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs this month. She said advertising about home loans alone could benefit some 1.5 million veterans.
Elizabeth O'Herrin, a veteran who was deployed in the Middle East with the Wisconsin National Guard, told the panel she was sent home with a box of brochures, and some letters tried to follow her as she moved around. "The Department of Veterans Affairs' reliance on traditional mailing campaigns to inform veterans of their earned benefits may work well for older, sedentary veterans," she said. "For more recently discharged veterans, this form of communication is less than optimal."
Rep. Harry E. Mitchell, D-Ariz., told the panel the VA's communications policies are badly outdated. "Numerous hearings have shown the necessity for the VA to proactively seek veterans after discharge. ... Modern media are essential tools for outreach."
Ready for a new approach
Lisette M. Mondello, the VA's assistant secretary for policy and inter-government affairs, told Advertising Age that paid ads will start next year. "This will give us more opportunities to reach out to veterans," she said. "We view [paid advertising] now quite enthusiastically."
She said the VA is seeking requests for proposals because its needs are diverse, with efforts aimed at veterans from different conflicts and requiring a variety of programs.