PR pros weigh in on Washington's healthcare summit

PRWeek asked public affairs and healthcare PR pros to grade communications efforts at Thursday's healthcare summit called by the Obama Administration to save its proposal for healthcare reform in the country.

PRWeek asked public affairs and healthcare PR pros to grade communications efforts at Thursday's healthcare summit called by the Obama Administration to save its proposal for healthcare reform in the country. The administration specifically reached out to GOP leadership to attend, as well as top Democratic congressional leaders. The Washington Post has the full guest list here. Whitehouse.gov along with a number of broadcast stations carried the February 25 meeting live from the Blair House. Here's what PR pros have to say:

Gil Bashe, EVP and practice leader for Makovsky Health, previously launched HealthQuest Communications and served as CEO of CommonHealth:

Politics took a front seat to process in today's healthcare summit conversation, and Republicans maintained a slight edge in forcing their agenda. Patients and pocketbooks, however, might be the ultimate losers in healthcare reform legislation based on the Senate bill. The House bill includes key points essential to reducing costs and improving care delivery ranging from addressing lifetime caps to biosimilar pathway.

While the White House attempted to set the tone for collaboration and called out the Republicans' partisan plays, the GOP showed it was at the table but not ready to rubberstamp the president's game plan. What the Republicans failed to do is show substance to their concerns. Fortunately for both parties, most Americans do not fully understand the critical issues beyond political slogans of “Trillion-dollar cost” and 2,000 unread pages.

The White House has yet to exhibit a bipartisan approach to reform and the Minority leadership failed to demonstrate specific reasons why Congress must start afresh.

Linda Dyson, EVP and public affairs leader at Cohn & Wolfe healthcare, has more than two decades of experience in healthcare communications:

The summit may have helped change the escalating opinion that government is broken; that it's highly-partisan, and the two parties are incapable of discussing, let alone, agreeing on anything. At the very least, they got together and talked respectfully and honestly about an issue that both have strong opinions on. If any one person, party or issue won, it was only the consensus that reform is necessary—all Americans need access to affordable, quality healthcare; the federal deficit, driven by rising healthcare costs, is unsustainable; and Medicare must be saved.

Since they can agree that something needs to be done, then the most important issue of our time will not go away.

Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate, specializes in issues management for governments, corporations, and nonprofits.

I think few observers had very high expectations for today's six-hour healthcare summit, billed as a bipartisan attempt to bridge the gap between Republican and Democratic approaches to healthcare reform. Over the course of the day, each side reiterated the same arguments they've used throughout 2009, the same arguments that have left the country without reform and without much hope of a bipartisan agreement in the near future. Participants talked at each other, not with each other.

While neither the Democrats nor Republicans are likely to be declared clear victors in the day's debate, there were a few winners and losers that emerged by day's end.

President Obama: Winner. He showed he was in command of one of the most pressing issue that faces America. He clearly enjoyed the role of calling upon speakers and then cutting them off. While some might say his role as facilitator diminished him, he commanded the room from start to finish.

Bipartisanship: Loser. While President Obama tried repeatedly to underscore areas of agreement, no one was buying it. The philosophical divide seemed to be accentuated by the discussion.

Democratic leaders: Losers. They weren't persuasive or engaging. The president was left to make his points without a lot of help from other Democratic leaders.

Republican rank and file: Winners. Each member was well-prepared and articulate. They made a strong case for resisting some of the most costly Democratic proposals.

Congress: Loser. The reputation of federal policymakers has been on a decline, and this summit simply reminded Americans that politics continues to get in the way of meaningful reform.

Political process: Winner. While the Summit may not have enhanced Congress' reputation, the fact that the event took place at all, and that both sides showed up prepared for civil debate, was refreshing.

Peter Pitts, director of global healthcare at Porter Novelli, is also president/cofounder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest:

The much ballyhooed White House summit on healthcare created no “aha” moments or Daily Show –worthy gaffes and was about as interesting to watch as Olympic curling. President Obama was hoping, by force of will, intelligence, and gravitas to both sway Republican lawmakers to his point of view (aspirational at best) while simultaneously demonstrating to the American people that his proposal was a moderate one (arguable at worst).

From a communications perspective, he was presented with a classic Nick Naylor moment. The president didn't realize the odds were 2-1 against. Not only did he have to prove he was right, he had to demonstrate the other side was wrong. The GOP had an easier task: to have something constructive to offer, not get shrill or look at their watches. They succeeded.

House Minority Leader, John Boehner was the man with a plan – an easy-to-explain 6-point plan. Communications 101. Their sound bites were designed to generate a collective nodding of “Me toos” across America. The Democrats were uncoordinated and visibly unhappy that they were unable to paint themselves as the white knights of healthcare reform.

Obama and the Democratic leadership needed a dynamic event that would galvanize public opinion behind their call for immediate and comprehensive healthcare reform legislation. They needed a hard-hitting Olympic hockey game. But there were no stand-up body checks. Instead, the president looked like a professor grading papers and the whole enterprise looked and sounded like CSPAN – the American equivalent of Olympic curling.

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