Army inspires conversation about PTSD with Memorial Day tweet

The Twitter handle for the U.S. military branch asked soldiers and veterans to share how their service had affected them. The responses included stories of pain, struggle and sacrifice.

Brand managers can’t control the conversations they start on social media.

The Army wanted to engage with Americans—and promote authenticity in its Twitter feed—by asking for stories about service and the military’s impact in their lives. What it got was an outpouring of pain and suffering as veterans and their families shared how the trauma of war had shaped their experience.

The discourse started with a video featuring a solider sharing why being in the military has been great for him and his family.

Then the Army turned it over to the public to share their stories for Memorial Day.

 NPR reported:

Soon after the U.S. Army tweeted its question, thousands of responses began flooding in. Many people tweeted about the positive impact military service had on their lives, but others posted stories of post-traumatic stress disorder, illness and suicide brought on by experiences ranging from seeing loss of life to sexual assaults in the military.

One man responded, “How did serving impact me? Ask my family.” He wrote of a “Combat Cocktail” which included “PTSD, severe depression, anxiety. Isolation. Suicide attempts. Never ending rage.”

The responses reminds us that user-generated content can create powerful conversations on social media—and how brand managers often struggle to direct that debate.

Many communicators used the conversation to make important points about how we can support veterans as they try to recover from a wide range of combat-induced injury.

NPR continued:

Responses to the U.S. Army’s Twitter post now number more than 11,000. The frequent references to PTSD don’t come as a surprise to Marsha Four, national vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America.

“When you’re in war, that’s what happens,” she said Monday in Washington, sitting near the Vietnam War Memorial. “I was a nurse. I dealt with death and dying every day. I dealt with people’s fear and their rage and their loneliness.”

Different wars may be fought for different reasons, and with different weapons, but some things remain the same, she said. “And that is: death, fear, and — and one thing I never forget is the smell of blood. It’s a very, very old and dark smell, and it’s something you never forget.”

Others say the tweets reveal how veterans feel ignored and unheard.

CNN wrote:

Kristen L. Rouse, founding director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, told CNN Monday the tweets showed that veterans haven’t been and need to be heard.

“We are going on 18 years of war, continuous war in multiple countries, the cost of these wars has been born by our military, by our veterans community, by their families who often feel invisible and ignored,” said Rouse, who served more than 23 years and has been on three tours in Afghanistan.

“We also heard on this Twitter thread from individuals or whose families served well prior to 9/11. It shows that our veterans and military community really needs to be heard.”

There are about 20 million veterans in the US, and fewer than half receive Veterans Affairs benefits or services, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 30% of these veterans served during the Vietnam War, 12% in the Gulf War and 11% to 20% in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the VA says.

“We can’t talk enough about it, it’s wonderful that this is getting attention, that this struck a chord with people, to see the individual stories,” Rouse said.

PR pros shouldn’t be surprised by how poignant the Army’s call for user-generated content proved to be. According to a 2017 study, user-generated content three times more authentic and influential than branded content.

However, user-generated content can lead to having significant problems aired in a high-profile way. For the Army, many veterans spoke about sexual assault and suicide, two pervasive crises that military leaders face.

NPR continued:

In addition to PTSD, another common theme on Twitter was the scourge of sexual assault while serving in the military. One woman wrote of suffering from depression and anxiety, and said she “still can’t deal well with loud noises. I was assaulted by one of my superiors. When I reported him, with witnesses to corroborate my story, nothing happened to him. Nothing. A year later, he stole a laptop and was then demoted. I’m worth less than a laptop.”

Another response: “My wife and I served in the @USArmy. We spent over 5 years geographically separated from each other. She was sexually assaulted on deployment and kicked out of the army for seeking treatment bc she was then deemed unfit for service. I got out bc her assaulters went unpunished.”

The user-generated content on Twitter had a far greater impact than the Army’s original post. For organizations looking to tap the power of social media, it is important to remember that UGC can’t be mimicked or faked.

The 2017 Stackla study wrote:

On average, adults can correctly identify if an image was created by a professional or generated by a consumer 70 percent of the time. In fact, the study revealed that customers will punish brands that try to fake it, with 30 percent of Millennials saying they have unfollowed a brand on social media because they felt their content was inauthentic.

“Today, authenticity is king. Consumers are inundated with content, and the only way brands can cut through all that noise is with authentic content,” said Peter Cassidy, co-founder, CMO and chief product officer at Stackla, in a news release. “Since consumers see UGC as inherently authentic and trustworthy, the best marketers among us are increasingly leveraging it to build lasting relationships with customers, deliver relevant brand experiences and ultimately drive revenue.”

However, some said the conversation is exactly what has been needed.

The Army thanked everyone for sharing their stories and emphasized an organization-wide commitment to mental health and recovery for veterans.

Others covering the story have diligently shared resources for anyone feeling alone or in pain.

CNN finished:

“We currently see a lot of people with mental health struggles who reach out to us,” said Rodman, who is a Marine veteran.Lindsay Rodman, spokeswoman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told CNN Monday there’s still so much that can be done for veterans.

Rodman said not every veteran is being reached by the VA with reasons varying from a lack of outreach, to some vets not qualifying for such benefits.

There are resources for veterans, including the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1) and veteranscrisisline.net.

“It’s essential,” Rodman said. “It is the immediate place to go if someone themselves are in crisis or if you know someone in crisis.”

What advice do you have for brand managers looking to solicit user-generated content, especially on sensitive topics?

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