Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book review: Deadly Spin

Wendell Potter was the chief PR flak for CIGNA until May 2008 when he walked away. He helped coordinate the health insurance industry's response to the Clinton health care initiative. He was the point man at CIGNA when Michael Moore released his health care expose Sicko. He helped craft the message that the health insurance industry wasn't part of the problem - they were part of the solution.

Now Mr. Potter is a crusader against the ways in which the health insurance industry has restricted and limited coverage for millions of Americans - while at the same time raking in huge profits.

His book, Deadly Spin, is an insider's account of how the health insurance industry works. It's also a tutorial in how to set up public relations campaigns - including the use of so-called "astroturf" groups; that is, groups that appear to be organized on a grass roots basis that are actually fronts for whatever industry is trying to protect its turf.

Mr. Potter thinks that public relations can be a useful, and beneficial tool, when used correctly. He believes that the health insurance industry, and its allies, misused the public's trust and bastardized ethical PR principles in its quest to attain higher profits.

The practices he denounces in the health care industry are the same tactics used in other industries facing regulation. Whether we're talking the soft drink industry, nuclear energy industry, coal industry or any industry facing scrutiny due to concerns over global warming -- the tactics are all the same. Read the book and you'll have more questions anytime you see an ad promoting an industry or decrying increased regulation.

I do think that Mr. Potter is a bit too Pollyann-ish with his belief that PR is a higher calling than just shilling for a company. The entire point of PR is to create an image in the public's eye that your client is a good neighbor, that your client is concerned about the well being of the entire community. Your job is to insulate that client when the shit hits the fan - which it inevitably will at some point.

There are no absolute truths in the PR world. Everything is a shade of grey and the job of the PR flak is to make certain that his client looks good in that shade.

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