I read a headline in my local newspaper today about the list of 2010’s top lies according to the website Politifact.com – a national fact-checking website. The winner was the oft-repeated claim that President Obama’s health care overhaul was a “government takeover”. According to the Politifact researchers, this loaded phrase has no basis in fact and is, at best, a gross exaggeration. According to the reports, the messaging was developed by a political consultant and designed to foster opposition to the legislation.
Sadly, the loaded, misleading phrase apparently played an important role in shaping public opinion – and fostering widespread misunderstanding – about the health care plan. Republican leaders and pundits repeated the phrasing with almost obsessive regularity – following the old adage that if you say something often enough, people will eventually believe it. A number of public opinion polls suggest the attacks got traction with the public, and most observers believe the losses by Democrats in the November elections can be attributed primarily to negative views on the healthcare reforms. (FYI: Factcheck.org has also repeatedly debunked the government takeover claim.)
No matter their political convictions or opinions on healthcare reform, communication professionals should be disappointed by the apparent success of this dubious messaging. Yes, it was effective – at least in the short-term – as a provocative and simplistic sound-bite. And it certainly helped shape public opinion against the healthcare reforms – at least so far. But it also reinforced all the negative stereotypes of public relations as spin, fluff and disingenuous hype. I’ll allow that politics is a more polarized environment where truth is often vulnerable to simplistic political slogans, but the dramatic impact of the healthcare attacks is still cause for concern. Has truth actually become irrelevant in public discourse?
As communication professionals, we’re often required to help our clients or companies to influence public debate and garner positive media coverage – and ultimately help drive a strategic agenda. And we certainly do our best to present information through messaging that is resonant and palatable with the target audience. We even advocate the message repetition I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the fundamental principles of public relations – such as commitment to transparency, honesty and respect for your audience. That’s what drives long-term credibility and trust, and helps build positive brand or personal reputation. We see clues of the Pyrrhic healthcare victory in the political arena; though public opinion is firmly against the healthcare overhaul, Americans have very low levels of trust in their elected officials – including those who so harshly criticized the healthcare reforms. So the messengers pushing the government overhaul canard seem to have a credibility problem of their own.
Ultimately, as professionals we need to ask ourselves what we would do to win an election, promote a stock or help sell a product. I suggest that sticking close to the facts is a good place to start. With no ethical compass, we deserve all the criticism the industry gets.