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head-slapping communication mistakes from the master communicator

September 8, 2009

in communication,health care

my head’s throbbing from the countless times i’ve slapped it in utter disbelief over the unfolding health care reform debate. the source of my incredulity isn’t maccaughey and palin’s death panels, opponents linking obama to hitler, or even barney frank’s questionable handling of certain town hallers—all great reasons for head slapping, mind you. it’s the master communicator’s shockingly lackluster communication strategy.

putting aside opinions about obama, health care reform, and the quirks of the legislative process, the current effort offers important lessons on communication mistakes to avoid.

defensive communication planning. communication professionals question intent and implementation to understand the goal, affected parties, potential roadblocks, and other nuances. through this upfront questioning we shape the communication strategy and often the program or process design. that’s why it’s critical for communication professionals to be part of any design team. this fact appears to have been overlooked by the administration. the reform process began in march (earlier, really), but it wasn’t until august that the government launched its web-based resource, reality check. in the meantime, our understanding of obama’s plan came from the media, blogosphere, and opponents. misinformation filled the void left by the administration, and now obama’s battling to get out in front of the message.

an unidentified face of leadership. in any change effort people look for a leader to hear from, if not believe in. obama has a lot on his plate, to be sure. yet he is the face of leadership in this debate. he’s the one who holds the vision for change, the ideal to which we should aspire. it’s he who most are waiting to hear from, and he’s been largely absent, ceding management of the message to others. way too many others.

lack of a clear-cut message. no matter how complex the initiative, communications need to boil it down to simple, consistent, memorable, and relatable key points. people need easy-to-recall messages that sum up the overall initiative. the opposition landed on “death panels” and “socialism.” in contrast, official communications delivered a challenging interplay between rising costs, global competitiveness, lost wage increases, incentives, quality of care, and so on without connecting the dots. missing was something akin to the compelling “yes, we can!” and inspiring race speech of obama’s campaign days.

ceding the emotional platform to the intellectual one. although obama shared his grandmother’s health story to illustrate his kinship with those stranded by today’s health care system, he’s clearly a facts man, most comfortable in the intellectual realm. problem is, health care exists in the emotional realm for most of us. until june’s launching of health care stories, there were no personal battles for health care to hook and impassion us.

no audience segmentation. communications should reflect each audience’s unique perspective and interest. throughout this debate, we’ve been addressed as one homogeneous, graduate-school-educated bunch. those interested in understanding the particulars have had to take the initiative and troll through dense language to figure out how the different plans affect us, whether our coverage will change, and what our responsibility for others will be. i’ve seen only one piece that took a stab at it, and it wasn’t developed by the white house.

failure to train the messenger. leadership can’t be everywhere, so a good communication plan relies on equipping others to carry the message. from the beginning, obama’s failed to marshal his ardent followers (his most effective tool for winning the candidacy). until approximately three months into the process, we saw no signs of obama’s outstanding grassroots machine of personalized emails, FAQs, and comprehensive website to equip the “everyman” to turn this boat around. and now i think that everyman is a wee bit nervous about the ability to do so.

according to the latest kaiser health tracking poll, the percentage of americans saying it’s more important than ever that we tackle health care reform has slipped from 61% (june) to 53% (august). tomorrow night may be obama’s last opportunity to wrest the conversation from opponents and regain control of it. i’m hoping for no more head-slapping communication moments. my head aches and my hand’s tired, but my fingers are crossed.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Bednar September 8, 2009 at 11:51 am

you have eased my guilt pangs! i've been thinking that i've been woefully uneducated on health care reform, despite my attention to print, web articles, etc., and been blaming it on lack of time. now i see why the whole country's not on obama's page.


fran September 9, 2009 at 12:57 pm

mark, i’m glad to absolve you of your guilt. just another service of mine 😉


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