PR, Stat!

June 20, 2009 at 9:33 am 3 comments

As the Obama administration ramps up its health care reform agenda, the keyword “public relations” is also ramping up in news about campaigns for and against the President’s efforts. Officially, any sweeping changes in our health care system will be debated and decided in Washington. The real battle will take place in the roughly 3.5 million square miles of American territory outside the Beltway.

Reuters is unstinting in its assessment of PR’s importance to the Administration’s health care overhaul when it describes a “public relations disaster” for the President and his allies: the release of a Congressional Budget Office report which concludes the Obama plan “would cost $1 trillion over 10 years but only provide coverage for 16 million of the estimated 50 million Americans who are uninsured.” The report’s findings are based on the submission of an incomplete Senate bill, a misstep that some attribute to the absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy, a decades-long champion of health care reform and political pro who would have never allowed such a “strategic blunder.”

A new group is communicating opposition to the President’s plan and presenting a double-edged PR sword in the process: Conservatives for Patients’ Rights(CPR), founded by Rick Scott, one of the backers of the Swift Boat ads. The presence of Scott and the firm that created the attack ads against John Kerry, CRC Public Relations, constitutes a new, vast right-wing conspiracy to supporters of the Obama plan. Scott is not lying low; he speaks directly to the media, is prominently featured on the group’s Web site, and touts his background as a hospital chief executive.  CPR is using a “facts and testimonials” approach in its commercials and infomercials. This is in contrast to the folksy “Harry and Louise” ads of the 1990s, when actors portraying an everycouple voiced concerns about the Clintons’ health care program.

Big bucks and big personalities (none bigger than communicator-in-chief Barack Obama) are taking sides in the health care debate. However, regional efforts may have more impact as lower-key, more trusted figures bring to the case to constituents and neighbors. One example is an association of state politicians, doctors and business owners in Washington state speaking in support of the President’s plan. Granted this group is part of a national coalition and includes members of the state’s congressional delegation, but their advocacy at the local level–one Rotary lunch or one e-mail response at a time–will enjoy immediacy and interactivity.

The outcome of this today’s health care debate will depend heavily on public relations. Honest, consistent information must be exchanged between all stakeholders. Experts preaching from on high have never been more out of vogue. The real experts: anyone who’s taken a child to the emergency room at 3 in the morning, anyone who’s held a spouse who just received a life-threatening diagnosis, anyone who’s had to cut workers because of insurance costs, anyone who regrets a career in health care because of the roadblocks to administering or receiving healing. In 2009, we don’t need Harry and Louise to speak for us. We will do it for ourselves.


Entry filed under: Leadership, Media, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  June 20, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    It’s good that you mentioned two key terms from the last time the national health care debate went up: “vast right-wing conspiracy” and “Bill and Hillary Clinton”. I was only 13 at the time, but I remember the spectacular failure that was “Hillary-care” back in 93-94. That is perhaps the single biggest drag on any PR campaign for national health care there is, particularly with Mrs. Clinton just as prominent in national politics as she was 15 years ago. While I understand that there is subtlety and nuance in the way President Obama is going about this, we all know subtlety and nuance don’t play in the 24-hour news cycle.

    • 2. jasonkarpf  |  June 20, 2009 at 8:21 pm

      Some would say Hillary Clinton lost her presidential bid 15 years ago with the defeat of health care reform and the personal demonizing she withstood. Obama knows the risks of this issue. If he gets in the mud, he loses his presidential aura. If he protects his political capital too much, opponents will steamroller his proxies. Despite unprecedented government involvement in the financial and auto industries (brought on by unprecedented fear and crisis), nobody had better imagine that it’s all transferable to the health care industry.

  • 3. jackie  |  June 28, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Jason, another excellent article. I always enjoy reading your perspectives which are based in fact and backed with strong examples.I love the fact that you are not afraid to tackle contoversial and sometimes sensitive topics . You effectively manage to diplomatically convey your points without offending – yet make the reader aware of both sides of an issue. I would not hesitate to recommend you for a teaching, journalistic, advertising, PR or corporate communications position. You have a great deal to offer on many levels. Keep it up!


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