Are healthcare PR people part of the problem or solution?

Yesterday, my 5-year-old son, Benjamin, explained over his bowl of cereal to his visiting aunt, "T-ball is better than real baseball, because in T-ball everyone wins."

Yesterday, my 5-year-old son, Benjamin, explained over his bowl of cereal to his visiting aunt, “T-ball is better than real baseball, because in T-ball everyone wins.” Now before you go “aww!” on the simple aspirational truths “from the mouth of babes,” read on. He continued, “even the losers get to win; but I'm never the loser.”

 

With more than a decade in healthcare PR, I am struck by the similar pervasive attitudes in healthcare. Namely, we talk a good game, but no one seems to be willing to give up being the clear “winner” in order to move the discussions ahead and past the loop of shallow rhetoric.

 

Let me explain. There's a rhetorical level to the debates that resonates with simple truth in quotes and sound bites around collective agreement on goals such as quality, cost containment, new discoveries, coverage for all, et al. But under our breaths, each constituency in the healthcare debate is finishing the sentences with a commitment to make sure that their employer/client ends up the “winner.”

 

That's the problem.

 

As PR people, our duty to our employers/clients requires an eye toward connecting the good an organization does for society in meaningful ways. That philosophy spawned the corporate social responsibility movement, but it needs to mean more than promoting foundation grants or Habitat for Humanity days.

 

That duty includes toning down the rhetoric, clarifying issues, and making sure these contribute to the overall discussion. We're bombarded with noise:  drug companies offer miracles and the media regurgitate messages in daily reports on the “cures” on the horizon on every front.

 

But there are shining examples to follow:

 

Despite the White House's regular applause for The Mayo Clinic, the nonprofit still spoke up in mid-July to criticize specific aspects of the House Democrats' healthcare reform bill. It could have just ridden the attention, as several other recent “studies” have attempted to do, claiming that if the rest of the country just copied their organizations' successes, all of our problems would be solved.

 

Instead of that hollow approach, Mayo's PR people dug into the proposal details and risked retribution to take a stand on small, but important policy issues – in this case de-politicizing the process for determining Medicare reimbursements. As a result, the President ultimately recommended the Mayo Clinic's changes to Congress.

 

In the end, Mayo's credibility and expertise is vindicated; and instead of winners and losers, the debate on an issue moved forward toward solutions. Certainly, the PR people had a key role. Batter up.

 

Joel Swanson is SVP at Risdall McKinney Public Relations

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