Q&A: Wendell Potter, former insurance industry PR exec.

Wendell Potter retired as the VP of corporate communications at Cigna in 2008 after working with the company for 15 years.

Wendell Potter retired as the VP of corporate communications at Cigna in 2008 after working with the company for 15 years. He has been speaking out against the health insurance industry and in support of healthcare reform since June, when he first testified before Congress about the insurance industry's practices.

Potter, who led Cigna's corporate communications and was its chief corporate spokesperson, is now a senior fellow on healthcare at the Center for Media and Democracy, a PR watchdog group that frequently speaks out against the industry. He talks with PRWeek about why he made the switch and what he sees as deceptive PR campaigns that hurt not only the public but also the PR industry.

PRWeek: Why did you decide to come out against the health insurance industry this year?

Wendell Potter: The decision to leave Cigna and then to speak out are really two different things. I chose to start speaking out against the industry because it was very evident to me that the insurance industry is using the same devious PR tactics that it's used over the past many years to defeat meaningful healthcare reform.

PRWeek: Did you find that it was your background with a health insurance company or your background in PR that led you to this decision to speak out?

Potter: I started speaking out because of the importance of the current healthcare reform debate, but also, because of my being a PR professional for many years, [I] was involved in the strategic communications planning for the industry in years past. One of the reasons I decided to leave my job was because I did not want to be a part of deceptive PR campaigns again, with a goal of either killing reform or shaping it to the industry's benefit.

PRWeek: Were there specific tactics or issues or messaging points that propelled you to take the position you have now or that you found questionable?

Potter: The industry for several years has used tactics that I find unethical – I view them now as unethical – such as establishing front groups and providing funding for those front groups, [which] try and disguise the industry's involvement in them and use those front groups to disseminate messages and perpetuate fear-mongering and scare tactics. And, also, [tactics like] the development of messaging to scare people away from reform and that messaging often including lies and disinformation.

PRWeek: Would you ever consider returning to the PR industry?

Potter: I would. When I left my job, I began doing some PR consulting and my ideal clients are those engaged in social responsible work of some nature.

PRWeek: Through your work with the Center for Media and Democracy, what are your main goals and what do you hope to accomplish?

Potter: My main goals, for the current debate, is to try to help people understand the role of public relations and the use of unethical PR tactics. Long-term, I want that to go beyond healthcare. These unethical PR tactics are used in many other industries and I hope to continue to shed light on that and maybe even be a leader in calling attention to it as a profession and lead the industry in a more ethical way.

PRWeek: In terms of your interaction with people who work in the industry, people you've worked with in the past, what are you hearing from them? Is there support within the industry for what you're doing?

Potter: I received a wonderful e-mail, soon after my Senate testimony in late June, from a former president of the Public Relations Society of America, applauding me for what I said and for what I'm doing. Yes, I've had a great deal of support from public relations practitioners as well as some former colleagues within the industry.

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