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Canada's veterans department shied away from a proposal to use social media "influencers" to get its message out to an increasingly fractured and frustrated community of former soldiers, sailors and aircrew, federal documents reveal.
An outside communications company called STIFF Sentences Inc. drew up a list of 15 potential "influencers", rated them on whether they had a "positive" or "negative" view of the department and pitched Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) on the concept, which has been adopted elsewhere in the federal government.
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A copy of the proposal, obtained by veterans advocate Sean Bruyea through federal access to information legislation, also proposed to enlist a wide swath of subject matter experts as a way to get the federal government's message across to veterans.
STIFF Sentences was hired in 2018 under a $7 million, two-year strategic communications contract (the largest the department has handed out in recent years) to help Veterans Affairs spruce up its image and sell its policies — notably the recently introduced, and still controversial, pension-for-life option promised by the Liberal government.
Convincing veterans that the new program fulfils the federal government's commitment to them — and that most former soldiers entering the system will be better off — was a tall order.
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Bruyea questioned how effective the external help has been, given that the department already has a large number of communications staffers.
"They put an enormous amount of effort into communications in terms of department staff, and still they had to go for outside help. And pension-for-life has been a huge failure in terms of communication," said Bruyea, who has publicly questioned whether the pension revamp lived up to what the Liberals promised in the 2015 election.
against then-veterans minister Seamus O'Regan in 2018 over an opinion article that appeared in the Hill Times, a twice-weekly publication that covers Parliament.
According to the proposal, STIFF Sentences recommended using influencers ahead of the new pension plan's implementation in April 2019.
Influencers' work is spreading in the federal government
VAC spokesman Josh Bueckert said the influencer proposal ultimately was rejected by the federal officials tasked with ensuring that former military members receive better, more direct and more clear information about the pension plan.
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VAC "decided it would be more appropriate to broaden the scope of its communications efforts to focus instead on sharing more information with a much wider range of veterans' organizations, engaging directly with them online, amplifying their social media content, and sharing VAC updates directly with these organizations ... rather than working with a specific group of influencers," said Bueckert.
The work of so-called paid influencers is a growing phenomenon in social media marketing; some critics claim the work occasionally crosses into advocacy. In the pre-social media era, such paid influencers would have been called "pitchmen" or "pitchwomen".
Other federal agencies and departments have employed paid influencers, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, Public Safety and Global Affairs. Each has reported hiring online influencers to deliver their messages to tightly targeted audiences.
A potential conflict of interest?
Bruyea said there was merit in some of STIFF Sentences' outreach suggestions — but hiring "influencers" would have been a bad idea for veterans.
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He said he gives VAC officials credit for not pursuing the idea further and warned them not to reconsider it because of the unique situation most "influencer veterans" would find themselves in.
To have any credible expertise on veterans issues, he said, influencers probably would have to be veterans themselves; they could be clients of the department or recipients of federal benefits.
"There would be a major conflict of interest," said Bruyea, adding that cynicism in the veterans community is deep and such social influencers likely would face a high degree of scrutiny.
Given the instinct many veterans have to serve, he said, "it would be tragically easy to co-opt people in the veterans community to be social influencers.
"But it would build up a lot of resentment and I think pretty quickly, when people discover there's a paid spokesperson, there would be a backlash."
Many veterans advocates and critics of the department have large online audiences — one of the reasons why the influencer pitch was considered important.
Bueckert said Veterans Affairs does not monitor social media accounts of individuals — but does keep tabs on "the social media accounts of stakeholder and advocacy groups, with the intention of amplifying or sharing posts that may be of interest to VAC followers."
Bruyea said he finds that disturbing.
"It smacks of Big Brother ... keep your friends close but your enemies closer. They just don't understand veterans who constructively criticize them."
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