When 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.