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Where Did It All Go Wrong? A Corporate Comms Perspective on Trumpcare

27th March 2017

Losing control of the narrative can cost you dearly...

So much has already been written about the collapse of the attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act that it’s difficult to find a new perspective. But I’m going to try.

My colleagues in DC are better qualified than I to comment on the politics of what went down on Friday, though it seems to me it was a lack of preparation, organization and flexibility, combined with a very effective grassroots opposition that capitalized on the vulnerability of many Representatives’ seats.

But what fascinates me, as a comms person, is the narrative. I mean, where did it all go wrong for those opposed to Obamacare?

For decades, the insurance companies, those in favour of smaller government, and others successfully portrayed attempts at healthcare reform as ‘creeping socialism’, as somehow anti-American. Finally, President Obama succeeded where Clinton had failed, and passed the Affordable Care Act. But in the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s pledge to repeal and replace it was loudly cheered at rallies throughout the country, and once elected, he and Speaker Ryan sought to make good on their promise at the earliest opportunity.

So successful was the 'Obamacare is bad' narrative that as recently as February, a third of Americans did not realize that the much-vilified Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were actually one and the same. Confronted with the reality that their healthcare provsiion was going to change, more people began to pay attention. And that's when the cracks began to appear.

The Affordable Care Act saw a surge in popularity. Democrats exploited this, and the Republicans lost control of the narrative. And once that happens, it is very hard to win it back. 

So, politics aside, what communication lessons can be learned from all this? Four things immediately occur to me:

  1. Build a consensus: Most Democrats would agree that the ACA is not perfect - though they probably all have a different opinion of how. The point is, the Bill that passed was the result of more than a year's negotiation and compromise. Only by building a consensus was President Obama able to get his Bill through Congress. Major initiatives of any kind, whether they are infrastructure projects, product launches or geographic market expansions, will have multiple stakeholders. And all need to be listened to, consulted with, and accommodated to some extent, in order to be successful.  
  2. Don’t operate in a vacuum: Just because you’ve said you’re going to do something, at a certain time and in a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to plough ahead with it regardless, if external factors have changed. Change tack if you need to, based on those external factors. Which leads me to the third point…  
  3. Pay attention to research: Candidate Trump was very fond of saying “Don’t believe the polls” – and he was right. But if your market research team is telling you that only 17% of people polled like the new product or service you are planning to launch, and it is even unpopular among your most loyal customers, you should probably re-think it. And finally…
  4. Substance matters: You can have sharp messaging, polished spokespeople, a creative marketing plan… but ultimately you need a killer product. The House Republicans were very keen to pass Trumpcare on the anniversary of the passing of the Affordable Care Act, and that kind of symbolism is great, but it can’t be at the expense of the product – in this case the Bill.

Speaker Ryan handled the news conference after the non-vote just right, striking a tone of humility when he said “Doing big things is hard”. He will now have to lead recovery efforts for the damaged GOP brand. But that’s a whole other post…

Jon Meakin

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