PR Pros: Obama Has Lost Control of the Health-Care Message

Opponents Are Stealing His Plays and Allies Are Dropping the Ball

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For a president and an administration that seemed to play the PR and communications game better than almost any that preceded them, President Barack Obama and his staff appear to have lost control of the messaging in the health-care reform debate, the first big policy test of his administration.

A woman holds a sign as President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting about health care reform in Portsmouth, N.H.
A woman holds a sign as President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting about health care reform in Portsmouth, N.H. Credit: AP
And according to a number of communications professionals, the irony in all of this is that the president's opponents have managed to define the issue and take control of the conversation with tools -- such as grassroots marketing and e-mail communications -- that he used to near perfection during the election. Lesson learned for the Republicans.

"The Republicans and industries lining up [to block] reform have been good about doing what Obama used to be good at, like getting people to attend town halls and forums," said Mark Hass, CEO and partner of MH Group Communications. "Everywhere the proponents of health-care reform go, they get into these shouting matches with people. The ability of the GOP to get people to attend these town hall meetings and shout has turned the news coverage into this chronicle of emotional debate. Republicans are doing what he did so well, using e-mail and grassroots organizing techniques around social networks effectively to get people out and to make this debate confusing."

No clear definition of bill
There are a number of issues at play that have put the administration in the unenviable position of having to scramble to regain control of the situation, according to the industry professionals who spoke with Ad Age. Foremost among them is that with three separate bills floating through Congress, there is no clear and definitive explanation of what the bill actually says. The administration essentially committed the biggest mistake it could from an issues-management perspective: It failed to define the issue before its opponent did.

"The Republicans have done a good job at capitalizing on the vagueness of the bill," said Nick Ragone, partner at Omnicom Group's Ketchum. "The administration made a little bit of a misstep in delegating the details to Congress. That's given the Republicans the ability to read into the bill what they want and communicate that to the broader public. You hear the president talk and it's very vague and uncertain, and that has worked against him."

Mr. Ragone said this "by far" has been President Obama's first major misstep. "He misjudged the country's mood and it's been too vague," Mr. Ragone said.

Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources, doesn't necessarily believe the Republicans have been masterminds, but instead lucked into a misstep by the administration. "The Republicans are massively disorganized and are essentially lucking into Obama's recent troubles," he said via e-mail. "While Democrats would like to believe that all of this pushback is orchestrated, my sense is that it's largely organic and through nobody's genius."

Ame Wadler, exec VP-global health care at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MWW Group, said the administration has done a terrible job of explaining the package to the public. But she also lays blame at the feet of Congress, which she thinks will end up damaging the president in the long run.

A partisan approach?
"President Obama promised there would be a more bipartisan and less political approach to his presidency and the leaders of the House and Senate are communicating and demonstrating partisan approaches," she said. "There is a clear arrogance toward the constituencies they serve. In fact, it seems they've forgotten that they are public servants and that they are representative of what people want, not what they think people need. There's a clear paternalism to the congressional communications and, frankly, an approach that is dismissive of the American people and as a result, while I think he is somewhat of an island because of his charm thus far, this will ultimately have a negative effect on Obama."

Mr. Hass doesn't feel any of this has had any negative influence on the president yet, but if "he doesn't come out of this with some type of victory or something he can claim as a victory, it will affect his personal brand."

Ms. Wadler doesn't like what she's seeing or hearing in the shouting matches between congressional leaders and their constituents at town hall meetings. Some congressional leaders have called those speaking out at the meetings un-American and debates have broken out over "authentic" grassroots efforts vs. "Astroturf" efforts. "That's one way to take the focus off of the issue by calling people rude and un-American instead of answering their questions," Ms. Wadler said.

And while she thinks those citizens shouting at members of Congress could face their own backlash, she said if that's what it takes to get heard, then so be it. "If it requires that you shout to get heard, then get heard," she said.

The second factor is the notion that Mr. Obama and his administration were resting on the laurels of what was a largely overwhelming sentiment throughout the presidential run -- that health-care reform must happen.

Torod Neptune, global public affairs practice lead at Waggener Edstrom, said it's clear this "full-scale legislative fight" is new territory for a lot of people in the administration and they were caught off guard. "It's the difference between campaigning and governing," Mr. Neptune said. "The ability to understand how quickly public sentiment can change and then being able to pivot and stay in front of that public sentiment is the holy grail for those of us in issues management and public affairs."

Mr. Neptune said in "brass knuckles-type" Washington policy discussions, rhetoric will not carry a person through, and engaging in a policy-specific battle is new to this administration. "At some point, you have to establish and frame the rationale and benefit of that issue," Mr. Neptune said. "That's the jump that has not been made as clearly and quickly. But they are clearly trying to make it now. It's not a battle of rhetoric, which is what we saw in the campaign and the first couple of months of the administration. Now you're getting down to the brass tacks of a specific policy legislative battle."

Rush was a mistake
The other contributing factor in this is the president's desire to quickly get another major bill passed before the August recess. Some say this may have been one too many for the public, who so far have already watched the multibillion-dollar stimulus bill and bailout plans expedited through Congress earlier this year.

Mr. Dezenhall thinks this was an enormous mistake on the part of the administration and Democrats in Congress. "Not only does the administration appear ill-prepared, they also appear arrogant and entitled, which may be even worse," Mr. Dezenhall said. "It's as if they believed they were destined to pass health care by virtue of some kind of kingly mandate. Being known for walking on water is a huge asset until you start believing it."

Ketchum's Mr. Ragone said rushing it through has also made people uneasy. "People are nervous, and rightly so," he said. "The stimulus package was rushed through with seemingly little payoff -- it has not gone the way it should have, and their follow-up to that was to rush health care through. That was a tactical misstep."

MWW's Ms. Wadler said the lack of clarity in the communication of what the bill entails coupled with the rush to get it passed was a bad cocktail the public doesn't want to swallow.

"By trying to rush it through without making an honest attempt to outline what it would mean in terms of costs and care, they made the public skeptical," she said. "It looked as if they were trying to rush something through so that people couldn't ask questions and couldn't challenge their assumptions."

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