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PR Experts: Obamacare Message (Not Just The Site) Needs Fix

A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange site on Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C.
Karen Bleier
AFP/Getty Images
A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange site on Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C.

There's little doubt that the Obama administration would like a health care website do-over.

Since its rollout Oct. 1, Obamacare's online insurance exchange sign-up, critical to success of the health care overhaul, has been a well-documented disaster.

The White House, in addition to managing considerable political fallout, also is dealing with a big, fat public relations problem. Just how does the administration go about winning the trust of the American people after the October Obamacare debacle?

For some answers, we turned separately to two top public relations executives: Ben Boyd, global chair of corporate practice at Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm; and Greg Jenkins, a former official in the George W. Bush White House, and now a San Francisco-based public relations consultant:

NPR: Some have compared the health care rollout to that of "New Coke," the disastrous cola remake. But this strikes me as nothing like that. The Coca-Cola people took a beloved product, tried to change it and simply reverted to the "classic" recipe to end the pain. Obamacare is a new product that people are already confused about. Now they're further confused and many are frustrated. Can you recall another product that had a troubled introduction and how it managed a public relations turnaround? What were the key elements of the effort?

Boyd: I also don't see it as a New Coke. It's more of a Netflix — a service that was introduced, not a product launch. There was outrage when Netflix changed its pricing structure. The CEO — across multiple channels including letters, YouTube and Facebook — acknowledged the mistake but didn't necessarily have an immediate answer. In a situation like that, it's almost like stop, drop and roll: Stop the personal investment in defending your decision, and roll forward into what should have been done.

That being said, you have to contextualize this in the political environment. Netflix did not have a public adversary. They dealt with outrage of their consumer base. The administration has had to deal with frustration of the citizenry, and also the political fallout. There is hyper-transparency. It is not a normal service screw up.

Jenkins: Regular people don't view health care like a soda or a car. The risks of choosing one "product" over another aren't life-threatening. Most people are naturally just a little suspicious of government to begin with. That's part of American DNA. So, when government can't make the case for something in simple, compelling terms, either government doesn't understand what it's pushing, or doesn't believe in it. Either way, people have a pretty good sense about these things. If it's a good deal, they'll take it. If it's not, they won't.

NPR: When President Obama gave his televised speech to apologize for the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov, he recited a 1-800 help number. He was subsequently mocked by some for sounding like an infomercial. Did you find that appropriate (isn't getting information out there PR rule No. 1?) or was it another stumble that exacerbated the public perception of big trouble? What should the president's public role be in recovering from the debacle?

Boyd: That was such a lose-lose situation. He made a judgment call that speaks to his pragmatism. He saw his primary responsibility as using the bully pulpit to create awareness out there of how people could enroll. It was probably more presidential to read it rather than have a chyron across the bottom of the screen.

NPR: When you look back on the past few weeks and how this has played out, from the White House response to congressional reaction — including Republican efforts to capitalize on the problems to attack the law — what is the biggest public relations lesson the administration should have learned?

Boyd: You can't put lipstick on a pig. In today's world, what's been forced on everybody is transparency, even though a lot don't like it. The changing dynamic in the way we communicate means that everything grows so fast. A lack of confidence in the strength and functionality of the website? There's nothing that public relations could have done to fix that. If they weren't at a 99 percent confidence level, they would have been far better to delay it. The buck stops with one person, and that person could have called any number of tech people in the world to find out what it would have taken to make this a success from the start.

Jenkins: The administration failed to appreciate that this is a two-sided coin. It's not a matter of how poorly the administration positioned the Affordable Care Act, it's a matter of the administration not appreciating the Republicans' ability to counter-position ACA. It seems like the administration drank a little of their own Kool-Aid and projected their heartfelt belief in ACA onto a skeptical public.

NPR: Looking forward, and setting aside the obvious political aspect for a moment, what should the administration do to turn around the conversation about Obamacare from "a disaster" to, at the very least, something along the lines of "a potentially valuable work in progress"?

Boyd: First, immediately begin talking about the success stories. Tell human stories about the difference the access to health care has made for families, individuals. Work across all channels, in multiple ways. Get labor unions, small business, third parties to tell their stories — that's more effective.

Second, accountability. This was a massive screw up. People want a reason to believe, and the administration is trying give that — they called it a "tech surge." I got it, but now who's on it? Our polling over 13 years shows us that the tech industry is the industry most trusted by the general public. Get a photo of the president sitting at a table with the head of innovation at Microsoft, Intel, and get him, sleeves rolled up, at a computer looking at the website interface. Provide weekly reports that create some public accountability. They can't afford not to be transparent about this.

Jenkins: Admit the entry-way to the system is flawed, but is getting fixed — they're doing that. Then move on and reduce their muddled messaging to two easily understood points directed at the public and nobody else: it's cheaper, it's better. If they can't easily do that, consumers may conclude it's a product they simply don't want.

Note: On Friday, the administration promised that the health insurance website would be operating well for most users by the end of November. Jeffrey Zients, the adviser brought in to manage multiple repairs needed to improve the site's performance, said: "Healthcare.gov is fixable."

"It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed. But let me be clear. Healthcare.gov is fixable."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.