If You Like It, You Can Keep It by: David Jarrard | posted November 14, 2013

“If you like your plan, you can keep it.” It sounds vaguely familiar.

He said it over. And over. And over again.

One of President Obama’s key talking points for the Affordable Care Act is now being replayed as part of a media firestorm against him. The uproar grew so strong that he has announced a one-year extension for cancelled plans and called the rollout a fumble.

Although it made for a nice sound bite, we now know that the promise was a fundamentally flawed message – one that may have serious consequences for the legacy of his presidency.

The crux of the problem lies in the message’s simplicity. Simple messages are good, but not to the point that they are inaccurate. The president feared the complexity of the truth would scare people into opposing it, or that his message would be hijacked by the opposition and used against him.

He chose to be clear and inaccurate, rather than accurate and troubled. It was a blunder – but one from which healthcare communicators can learn.

  1. Words matter. A let’s-say-anything approach is destined to fail. During times of change, people are parsing every word of your message. With heightened sensitivity – and emotions often in the mix – you must pay extreme attention to your words. Expectations are high and, as we’ve seen, you will be held accountable.
  2. Engage in complexity. To assume that your audiences are unwilling to have a tough conversation is patronizing and insulting to them. You have to dig into those hard conversations instead of skirting the issue. Often, your willingness to be open with them – to take the time to engage them – will win you their support. Even if they don’t fully agree with your message, they’ll believe in you.
  3. A catch phrase is not a catch-all. Boiling down an immensely complex issue – like healthcare reform – into one short sentence cannot accomplish everything you need it to. Once you’ve identified what you want to achieve with your communications, you can tailor messages to meet your goals. But a hyper-compressed phrase that has lost its truth won’t cover a multitude of sins. It will only add to them.

Carefully considering your approach to complicated messages will save many headaches in the long run. Your message should never mislead – even if it’s simpler that way.

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About David Jarrard

David Jarrard, Jarrard Inc. CEO and partner, is a strategic healthcare public affairs counselor who has led communications campaigns for nearly two decades, addressing mergers and acquisitions, regulatory, crisis and leadership issues. He is a former journalist, business advisor and corporate communications executive. Contact him at 615-254-0575 or djarrard@jarrardinc.com.