Words Matter: Why Obamacare Is A Communications Disaster

Health Insurance InfogramWhen comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked people on the street whether they favored the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act won handily.

This confusion is not limited to Kimmel’s street prank.

Polls show that people don’t know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same. And they react more negatively toward Obamacare than toward affordable health care.

While Kimmel was working a comedy routine, the lesson should not be lost. Words matter.

It escapes me why the Obama administration allowed opponents of the health care act to define it and, ultimately, demonize it. Even worse, some administration officials use the “Obamacare” handle themselves.

This lack of message discipline, in effect, works against the signature legislation of the President they serve.

The lessons in this communications debacle are many.

 How to Do It Better

First, tell your own story. Never leave this to others. Define yourself before others define you.

Second, keep it simple. The complexity of the legislation overwhelmed the simple message that its purpose is to make health care affordable to more people.

While the opposition defined Obamacare as complex, unworkable and economically destructive, the wound is also self-inflicted.

Communications consultant Ann Wylie analyzed four text samples in an online training manual for field workers who are assisting people to sign up for health insurance under the new law. She found the passages difficult to understand.

Wylie shows how to present complex procedures in simple language. Her suggestions:

  • Use bulleted lists
  • Break up long sentences
  • Use active rather than passive writing
  • write to the reader in the second person
  • Use short words (two syllable words are easier to read than three syllable words)
  • Use personal illustrations
  • Ask a question

Most general interest publications are written for eighth grade comprehension level, but studies show that those who can read at a higher level are not insulted by reading downward.

Therefore, simplifying doesn’t lose readers or harm communication, it can enhance comprehension.

Third, communication is a strategic function. It’s not limited to tactics.

Communication is a Strategic Asset

Communicators implement tactics, such as deciding how to package and present information, but tactics come after thoughtful consideration about the key message, or messages, and how to deliver them. This requires strategic thinking.

When communicators start with tactics and don’t give sufficient thought to strategy we reduce our role to a support function and allow others to define us by that role.

I advocate for communication to be viewed as  a strategic function, especially in the always-on, multi-media environment of the 21st century.

Strategy requires thinking about who we want to interact with and how they use media. It involves knowing if the information we’re conveying is important for them and how we will reach them.

Most importantly, it involves developing a clear message and consistently presenting it.

Learning From the Mistakes

I hope the Obama administration is learning this lesson because access to affordable health care is important.

Even before the embarrassing website fiasco, the Affordable Care Act was in trouble because it had been defined as Obamacare, and that’s an epithet to some people.

Lack of strategic communications’ planning and consistent messaging had already created a void filled by negative perceptions. Now this botched communication threatens the most significant policy initiative of the Obama presidency.

Words matter.


3 Responses to “Words Matter: Why Obamacare Is A Communications Disaster”

  1. Ann Wylie October 28, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    To clarify, Larry, I just reviewed a few passages of the online training program.

    • Larry Hollon October 28, 2013 at 11:12 am #

      Thank you. I’ll note this in the text.

  2. G. Tom Poe November 30, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    As a UMC pastor and Professor of Communication Studies at a large Midwestern University teaching Media, Culture & Society, Advertising and P.R., I found your analysis of the communication mistakes made in regard to “Obamacare.” Indeed, “words matter.” Having read your thoughtful post on this subject, I’d now be interested in a similar analysis of another “communication disaster,” that being the “branding” of the UMC as denomination that proclaims to have “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s a great slogan, until the UMC is caught-up in a media firestorm over the current church “trials” over LGBT issues. As one of my advertising students who grew-up in a UMC church recently said to me, “That UM “Open Hearts, Minds, Doors” slogan makes me feel like I can’t believe anything my church says.” He went on to say, “It’s like a sleazy ‘bait-and-switch’ ad campaign. It’s embarrassing.”

    Any thoughts on how our own UMCommuications staff needs to adders our own current “communication disaster?” After all, “words matter.” Saying things we don’t believe will ultimately make more young people stop believing anything we say.

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