On Memorial Day we honor our veterans who have fought in the battles our country has faced to retain the wonderful freedoms we Americans enjoy.
Their needs and priorities may have changed since they donned their uniforms, as many of them have aged with the passing of time. But there is one organization that continues to fight for their ever-changing concerns and remains a loud and clear voice for each and every one of them.
From the growing concerns of VA healthcare with the controversial 40 who died in the Phoenix VA Hospital due to delays in receiving care, to using every channel available to get that message and many others out; the American Legion Magazine stands strong for veteran’s everywhere.
I recently spoke with Jeff Stoffer, American Legion Media & Communication Director and Editor of American Legion Magazine, about the Phoenix controversy and the growing concerns of vets and what his organization is doing to help.
Passionate about his members, print and the many channels the American Legion uses to promote and be an advocate for veterans all over the country, Jeff has a deep and abiding affinity for the men and women who have and still are defending it.
I hope you enjoy this very moving and uplifting interview with Jeff Stoffer and to everyone out there: Happy Memorial Day!
But first for The Mr. Magazine™ Minute with Jeff Stoffer and how The American Legion engages with the members it serves:
And now for the sound-bites:
On the role the American Legion organization plays in controversies like the Phoenix tragedy: We recently reorganized our whole communications program to run the gamut between digital, from social media, from Intraday, social media messaging, all the way through to print product, every piece in between and we’re all driving at the same holes.
On whether the gamut of channels his organization uses adds to or detracts from their print product: They all drive to the print edition. The print edition brings, as a completely separate identity, in a use in these different media.
On his most pleasant surprise in his career with the American Legion: Media-wise, I would say that the most interesting phenomenon is that we started an E-newsletter with a very small Alpha population of 86,000 subscribers and now we’re at 509,000 subscribers.
On his biggest stumbling block: Certainly the issue of silos. We’re a multi-faceted, broad organization with many different divisions.
On what keeps him up at night: I think what keeps me up at night is the infinite nature of today’s media. It seems like whenever you open up a door, there is another door down the hall and another door. You never know what is going to happen next.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Jeff Stoffer…
Samir Husni: You are currently in the midst of one of the most newsworthy and controversial situations ever. Everyone is talking about the veterans; everyone is talking about the 40 who died. What role does The American Legion play in all of this and how do you differentiate from having a print magazine, a website, the blog; how are you integrating all of this and what is the benefit to the veterans?
Jeff Stoffer: As the nation’s largest veteran’s service organization, there is kind of an expectation that we would be the voice of the veteran stakeholder in VA healthcare. In this case, this is not an issue that is new to us. We have been tracking preventable deaths at VA Medical Centers for the past couple of years because a few have popped up. We’ve been following the VA since the 1930s when the American Legion was instrumental in its formation. Now comes the time when a lot of people have a stereotype or maybe even a negative stereotype or a misunderstanding of what the American Legion is and does.
We recently reorganized our whole communications program to run the gamut between digital, from social media, from Intraday, social media messaging, all the way through to print product, every piece in between and we’re all driving at the same holes.
This reorganization did not really complete until March, 2014 and a month later we have CNN breaking the news of at least 40 preventable deaths in Phoenix. So it turned out that this would be a good opportunity for us to see how our reorganization was going to work. And it began with our social media program, tweeting about it; it was followed by our Facebook messaging where we received a great deal of market response, our audience responded to it. We got a lot of activity, we had a press release and stories started going onto our website.
So we created a branded web platform that wasn’t just “here’s the story,” but was interactive, it asked veterans to step into that site and actually type in and tell us their stories of waiting for care at VA health centers.
So at the end of the day what we ended up doing was we were already engaging the market essentially by sort of interviewing veterans across the country about their experiences with this big issue, using social media and the website so now as the story unfolds and more people learn about it and network news becomes involved, we become part of a Senate committee hearing on veteran’s affairs that is nationally televised and aired.
And now as this arc of media sort of continues to flow, we have reconfigured our editorial land so that the American Legion Magazine’s cover story in July will bring perspective, interpretation and analysis to all of these different hits.
And think about this, it’s almost like a reporting tool because we were able to get so many people to respond to it, provide us their voices. We turned our writer on to voices that came through Facebook that came through our interactive web platform, and the national media: the NBC’s, the CNN’s and the Washington Posts’ of the world were coming to us and asking what were veterans saying.
So we fulfilled our tried and true role as the voice of the stakeholder in veteran’s advocacy on this issue. And this extends beyond, quote-unquote, media channels. We had a town hall meeting in Phoenix, Arizona which was actually a physical presence by our national commander to step up, we coordinated media and veterans, and we brought 200 people into one American Legion post and 60 veterans got up and talked about the problem and it was aired on local and national television and it was aired on our website.
So it’s not about so much the channel; channels have their unique identities and they have different purposes, but it’s about the message and how we use the different channels to deliver the message efficiently. And I think we have done so in this way.
What we’re trying to do now is find a way to measure what this whole gamut of media mean to the American Legion. We’re going to talk about how frequently our brand was delivered to our audience and to external audiences. And then what is the number of that audience; we’re talking about network news and tens of millions of people; if we’re talking about Twitter, we’re talking about 250 million Twitter followers. But what is real about that and how do we measure the media impact in this era. We know the magazine has a fundamental baseline audience, we have metrics on our readership, so we can put a number on our magazine, but what we can’t put a number on is what does a Facebook “like” really mean. What does a “retweet” really mean? Are those real numbers? What does it mean when NBC Nightly News says that they might have 8 million viewers a night, or whatever it might be; I just made that number up, but ultimately that doesn’t mean they all just jumped on the bandwagon for the American Legion. Or maybe they just tuned completely out on it.
But what we want to do is develop some sort of a model that would identify what all this experience, this issue, our coverage of this issue, using all of our multiple channels did in terms of total impact and we’ll measure impact by visits to our website, by membership, acquisition via online or not and donations; we have a fundraising program in merchandising, our four big revenue streams. And so our plan is to say what our coverage of this issue means to the association or the organizations.
Samir Husni: Are all these channels that you’ve used going to help the print edition or detract from it?
Jeff Stoffer: They all drive to the print edition. The print edition brings, as a completely separate identity, in a use in these different media. From Twitter, which is a 140 character message to a big cover story within a feature well of a magazine, to everything in between; all of these electronic media blasts are like little fireworks that shoot off and they go and filter out, landing on the ground, and then at the end of this experience somehow, some way we have to put it all into perspective and into one overarching analysis, even if it’s for posterity to say what this experience was, what it meant, what about it helps define our organization. That’s the purpose of a magazine feature in my opinion is to bring context to multiple issues perhaps.
So I think that they all have separate related interests, they all feed one into the other and they cross pollenate each other. We will have in our magazine feature a sidebar, a capsule sidebar to say, tell us about your experience waiting for your VA appointment or your VA community visit at legion.org.
And that’s not read more on legion.org; we’re saying act on legion.org and there’s a big difference. I’m with you when you say if you want to read more, go on legion.org and read more. I’m not going to go to the next movie theater to watch the rest of my movie.
But if they say I just watched a movie and now I want to go do something about it, I will go to that next building and do something about it. So it’s an idea of mobilizing our audience and activating our audience, because I think there is value when you’re a member of something. You want to feel that you’re not just a member in name only. You want to feel like you’re a part of something that’s happening and doing something and functioning to correct a problem, to be an advocate on behalf of your fellow veteran in our case.
Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant surprise in your tenure with the American Legion?
Jeff Stoffer: It’s completely off base, since 2006, when I first went to Normandy, France I got to know many D-Day veterans and I wrote a magazine article about Sainte-Mère-Église , France and how that community rebuilds and reconstructs itself every first week of June, every year. And this is kind of a fun experience with media to, because I write a feature story and then a documentary filmmaker fights my story and he says, “Hey, I would like you to write a treatment for a documentary film.” So I wrote a treatment for a documentary film and a script and a screenplay and I get to meet and interview multiple World War II D-Day veterans and these were incredible people.
Then I ended up writing a book about a particular figure in Normandy that was really important. And now I take the national commander back and in two weeks I’ll be going back to Normandy with the national commander for my 8th straight year, this time for the 70th anniversary. And what makes me smile is I know that I’m going to meet some of these guys that I’ve known, even though many of them have passed since I was last there.
When I talk to these guys and I come to understand this important moment in world history, the Normandy Invasion, and to have actually helped tell their story and be a part of this developing and understanding of it brings me pleasure.
Media-wise, I would say that the most interesting phenomenon is that we started an E-newsletter with a very small Alpha population of 86,000 subscribers and now we’re at 509,000 subscribers and sometimes they’ll open this up at 56%. It is an email opening audience and it’s fun because every week we have the opportunity to kind of produce a best-of what’s in our digital media and a little bit to our print. It’s a weekly promotional thrust that has been just so successful that I get excited for Thursdayto come. It’s fun.
Samir Husni: And what has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?
Jeff Stoffer: Certainly the issue of silos. We’re a multi-faceted, broad organization with many different divisions. We work in jobs and economics, business development for veterans. We work in healthcare and benefits; all of these different areas of Americanism, American Legion baseball is housed in the American Legion National Headquarters, we have Jr. Shooting Sports, Boy’s State, Boy’s Nation, oratorical and a big gamut of legislation.
So all of these things that were spread out across all of these multiple landscapes, we previously did not really treat in our media, or not much, it was just kind of what we did on the Hill or in the community. And the magazine was more of a general interest magazine.
So what communication that was done in support of those programs was usually done in each of those divisions. What we had to do as we got the website and we started to break down some of those silos was to try to move some of the divisions out of the kind of thinking like I’ve got be my own public relations person and my own media person when they’re really program managers or policy people, they aren’t communications people.
And through time, slowly and painfully, we have broken down the silos, integrated some divisions, gotten other divisions, other areas of the organization to work with us to best brand and deliver the American Legion’s message. So it’s been a multi-faceted breaking down and I know this is true of a lot of associations, but it’s a lot of different departments and a lot of different communications people. Now we’ve standardized our brand, made for a more coherent and cohesive message for the whole organization.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Jeff Stoffer: I think what keeps me up at night is the infinite nature of today’s media. It seems like whenever you open up a door, there is another door down the hall and another door. You never know what is going to happen next and you have choices and you are not confined by the amount of paper you can afford or the size of the sheet. You are only confined by the priority of the messaging. Because electronic media gives you infinite opportunities and that can be a lot; when there are no restrictions on the space that you can use.
What keeps me up at night right now is that I have many, many divisions because we have been very successful in our media program. Many interests in the organization are at the door knocking, saying hey, I need you to do this, or we need to develop this, can you help me with our social media program. You want to do it all.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
Samir A. Husni is a professor with the Meek School of Journalism and New media. He is “the country’s leading magazine expert,” according to Forbes ASAP magazine; “the nation’s leading authority on new magazines,” according to min:media industry newsletter; and “a world-renowned expert on print journalism,” according to “CBS News Sunday Morning.” The Chicago Tribune dubbed him “the planet’s leading expert on new magazines.” Husni holds a doctorate in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas.