Communications stumbles hamper healthcare reform

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but the Obama team would likely give August this honor.

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but the Obama team would likely give August this honor.

The healthcare industry's “Kumbaya” reform-spirit of a few months ago has given way to warring political sectors and a cacophony of dissent that fills the airways.

How the momentum for reform has hit a major speed bump is political gist for the cable shows, blogs, and columnists. For those of us in the communications business, however, there are some clear lessons that transcend the political debate.

Managing the noise

When President Obama was in Montana for a town-hall meeting, ads opposing healthcare reform appeared 115 times on network and cable channels. An estimated $57 million in advertising has been spent by both sides in the last six months, most of it in the past 45 days.

The challenge of getting your message across with this level of “noise” is daunting, and it is exacerbated by a 24/7 news cycle. When Medicare was debated in the 1960s, there was no blogosphere or cable news outlets with a voracious appetite for content.

While online and cable have had a huge multiplier effect on news platforms, and to a healthy extent have democratized news, it also has made it much more difficult for any one message to penetrate the noise barrier. To break through this clutter you need consistency and repetition in messaging.

Due to a lack of specifics from a healthcare bill, the administration could not harness resources behind a few consistent messages, but instead was caught in an environment of shifting messages. By allowing legislators to work through their respective plans and multiple policy options, the Obama team created confusion for the public and took a big hit on the communications front.

Emotions trump facts

Does anyone really believe that President Obama, or a member of Congress, would pull the plug on Grandma? Such is the climate of fear fostered by opponents of reform that a sizable portion of the public believes “death panels” are an actual part of a reform package.

Journalists can debunk these myths until they are blue in the face, but such gross misperceptions persist. What do you do when facts don't matter in a public debate?

As communicators, we know emotion plays as big a role in a compelling narrative as facts. Proponents of reform need to get off policy tangents and talk about how reform will touch people's lives. Fear of change is at the root of much of the opposition to reform. Opponents scare people with what they would lose with reform; proponents need to counter with what people would gain.

We are in the midst of one of the great debates in our nation's history. The stakes are huge – for our economy and for millions of our citizens. Effective communications will be central to who prevails in healthcare reform. The game is far from over, and we are seeing strategists on both sides learning the lessons of August.

Nancy Hicks is an SVP in Ketchum's Washington, DC, office, and associate director of the firm's North America healthcare practice.

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