The Elephant in the Room: Policy and Politics in Healthcare PR

Dec 7, 2016

The Day After
Wednesday, November 9, about 6am. Bleary eyed, I throw back a couple cups of black coffee and start collating and reviewing my notes, observations and potential talking points on the election results and their affect on healthcare PR before making phone calls and firing off e-mails to clients.

The GOP had captured the White House and retained majorities in both houses of Congress. From now until Inauguration Day political and policy reporters would be laser-focused on the agenda of the incoming administration, the Senate, and the House and the impact it could have on the country.

Healthcare specifically the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicaid expansion and even accountable care is near the top of that list. Reporters and editors would be turning to the industry for their perspectives, hot takes and prognostications.

The Elephant in the Room
Many vendors and healthcare associations, especially those who work to some extent in areas of policy or advocacy, decline to publicly speak on political matters because they have to work with whichever party controls the executive and legislative branches. The increased intensity of partisan rancor also makes healthcare companies reluctant to comment on any hot-button topics for fear of losing customers or causing internal turbulence with key staff.

Industry leaders can certainly decline to speak and have legitimate reasons for doing so. But it’s critical that their public relations executives prepare them for that eventuality anyway.

There’s an old adage that says that politics and religion are the two forbidden topics at the dinner table. However, the former is not always an option for healthcare PR pros and their clients. Let’s face it: no matter your political affiliation, the results of the 2016 general election will likely have a significant impact on the healthcare industry,

Don’t believe me? Take 60 seconds to check out your news and social media feeds.

An Approach to Message
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, I had explored with my clients potential frameworks for how to respond to the priorities of a new administration and Congress. The differences between the two national parties on healthcare are both well-known and famously divergent. Democrats favor modifying and improving the ACA. Republicans campaigned on the law’s repeal and replacement.

I recognized a few potential hazards for my clients who chose to go on the record. First, much of today’s politics is personal and personality-driven. I felt that as a PR executive, my job was to frame the issue of healthcare policy in a way that was factual and focused on the policy and its potential ramifications.

The second major hazard is the perilous nature of predictions. Yes, non-partisan agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office had outlined potential impacts to healthcare based on candidates’ statements and plans. However, the political process is filled with too many twists and turns, too many procedural tricks and local political considerations to make any prediction a sure thing. In addition, speculation is often peppered with bias (any prime-time cable news panel is evidence enough of that).

Through my own research and discussions with clients, the overarching theme of nearly all perspectives was uncertainty. Campaigning is wholly different from governing. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The healthcare plans of the two parties could not be more different. But how would political realities alter those stances?

For payers, providers and patients all of whom have invested incredible time, resources, and money into the implementation of the ACA uncertainty became a story unto itself. All of the information I had collected began to take shape as a narrative my clients could use as industry thought leaders while avoiding the volcanic clickbait statements that dominate today’s political discussions.

Lessons Learned
I wasn’t always in PR. I cut my teeth in journalism, and admit to viewing PR as a profession more focused on obfuscation than clarity. My 18 months working in PR has certainly changed my perspective and this first major election of my new career has offered me some critical lessons.

  1. Spin is Dumb. A general election is unique in so many different ways. A grueling 18-month campaign focused primarily on scandals and gaffes sometimes feels as if it is something to be endured rather than an opportunity to understand the principles and policies supported by the candidates. “Spin” is a major driver in the paper-thin evaluation of political candidates and their policies. I see my job as an opportunity to raise awareness and educate. But even honest assessments and insightful thought leadership requires calibration and planning.
  2. Messaging Matters. Even if your company is not interested in speaking to the press on any political matters, it’s smart to at least talk about it. We live in an omni-channel world. Everyone, it seems, has four or five social media accounts. Understanding how to approach your narrative will help you navigate the murkier swamps of policy and politics.
  3. Prep is Key. I’ve worked in healthcare for more than 12 years. Many of my clients have been in the biz even longer. And one of the reasons we are all successful is that we realize that we can always learn more. Collect as much information you can. A lot of it you’ll already know but seeking out a variety of perspective can help you shape how you tell your story.

There’s no getting around it. Reporters from national publications and healthcare trades are turning to the industry’s thought leaders for their perspectives on what the next four years could look like for the healthcare industry and the millions of people it serves. It’s critical that we present ourselves as knowledgeable and responsible sources of information.

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Matt Schlossberg

Matt is an award-winning journalist and editor with nearly 20 years experience in news and feature writing/editing; content strategy; marketing and brand journalism; book acquisitions and publishing; copywriting; digital content development; strategic communication planning; social media engagement strategies; multimedia presentation development; and editing on multiple platforms, including print, online, and digital publishing. He previously managed communications for HIMSS, and worked as a reporter.