The mildly pathetic rollout of Healthcare.gov has given health and technology PR professionals a chance to remind people how useful they think their advice can be. As Politico reported Monday, October 1, 2013 is a day that will forever live in infamy in PR Case Studies. Basically, it's been a great chance for PR companies to "hijack the news" — aka, use current events to make themselves relevant. That involves dishing out a lot of obvious advice driven by self-promotion.
Healthcare PR blogs have especially benefitted, since they now have something to write about that interests the general population. It's also opened the door for the top healthcare PR companies in America to produce such inspired headlines as "Health Insurance Exchanges: Money for Nothing and the Care’s Not Free?", "If You Like Your Plan, You Can Keep It", and "Insurance Exchanges...Say What Now?"
In the wake of the launch, PR companies have taken it upon themselves to publicly give the Obama administration advice like, "While admitting they screwed up and apologizing for the problems, they should have ALSO reassured the large number of people who went to the web site seeking insurance," as H+A International said in a 15-point diagnosis sent to its clients. "Although this fact was mentioned, that messaging should have been repeated and reinforced whenever possible."
That advice is both very obvious and very wrong. Yes, the Obama administration should reassure people who are worried about the website. But the reason the White House has postponed its Healthcare.gov PR push until now is that it didn't work, as several media outlets noted last month. The administration did come up with a bunch of buzzy phrases like "tech surge" to emphasize that the site was being fixed. But maybe "Make sure your product works" is one of the other points.
Others argued that the White House should have constantly brought up the multiple success stories of the Affordable Care Act. “Although a few reporters did write about some success stories, the White House should have been researching these successes and sharing them with the media and general public on an ongoing basis,” Ross Halligan, H+A International's CEO said. “At some level you need to demonstrate enough success so that people actually sign up for it," Chris Lehane, a crisis communication consultant said. In late October, during an interview with NPR, a PR executive also recommended the promotion of success stories: "Tell human stories about the difference the access to health care has made for families, individuals," Ben Boyd of Edelman said.
Again, obvious and wrong. The most prominent Obamacare success story covered by the media was the Washington woman who was mistakenly told she was eligible for subsidies due to an error in the state's exchange. That sort of backfired. Also, if Halligan, Lehane, and Boyd happened to subscribe to the White House twitter feed, they'd see that they tweet out success stories all of the time, as you can see to the right.
In general, these PR companies are sort of like people who recommend that you try turning your computer off and on to get rid of a virus. Their expertise is obvious, and they keep talking to remind you they exist. Still, at least one piece of indisputably solid, though late, advice came out of all this. According to Politico, "public relations and messaging consultants were nearly unanimous in saying the White House failed a cardinal rule of crisis communications: Own up to the problems — and fast." It took a week for the administration to acknowledge that it wasn't just high interest bogging down the site, and three weeks before the president made his first apologetic speech in the Rose Garden. Even now the administration has been slow to discuss errors in enrollment forms sent to insurers. But you don't need a PR company to tell you to own up to mistakes everyone already knows about.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.