Over the weekend, advisor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, mentioned the use of “alternative facts” in an interview on Meet the Press. The show’s host, Chuck Todd, quickly pointed out that anything less than the truth is considered a falsehood.
As the buzzwords made the rounds on the internet, communications professionals had the chance to reflect on their ethics and ideals. The Public Relations Society of America released a statement that every communication professional should take to heart:
“Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts. We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”
One industry where the truth is particularly needed is health care. Patients take statements and recommendations from providers and companies as fact, because the health care system is built on a strong foundation of trust. You have to trust that a medical device or prescription is going to treat or cure an ailment. Health care communicators need to embrace the responsibility of trust by providing messaging based on integrity.
Let’s look at some examples throughout the health care industry that demand truth:
Medical technology: Although medical devices undergo stringent regulatory testing, errors still occur in these products. In a crisis situation, companies need to react quickly with honest information, as there is no room for ambiguity when the product is a pacemaker or heart stint. Once information becomes available, it needs to be communicated in a clear manner across multiple channels. While the brand might take a short-term hit, people will recognize and respect swift action to correct an issue.
Insurance providers: Rising costs to do business in Affordable Care Act individual marketplaces this year forced many large insurers to withdraw. Aetna cited this as the reason they pulled out of 70 percent of their plans prior to the open enrollment period this year. However, the truth has a way of coming out. This week, a federal judge reprimanded Aetna for covering up the true reason they pulled out of the marketplace: to make good on a threat. The company was unhappy with a federal antitrust lawsuit that prohibited them from merging with Humana. Although being forthright with this truth from the onset would have been damaging, they are now in a deeper hole after deceiving the public.
Pharmaceutical: Another example of the power of truth comes from Mylan’s handling of their EpiPen pricing controversy. Criticism came when it was revealed that prices of the lifesaving product rose steadily over the span of a decade. Mylan responded to the criticism with action and a level of transparency, offering interviews with the CEO and information on the company’s website. They also launched a generic version of the EpiPen at a much lower price point. However, the company has never admitted wrongdoing, even settling with the government over allegations of shortchanging on Medicaid rebates. So while Mylan opened up and took action, there is still a cloud of doubt in the mind of the consumer.
In closing, here are three tips for health care communicators to remember:
- Don’t manipulate outward-facing channels – During crisis situations, people will take out their frustrations on social media platforms. Do not edit your Facebook page to be a sparkling sanctuary by eliminating negative posts. When possible, address concerns with facts to create transparency. Also, provide meaningful releases and statements that attempt to explain and inform rather than deceive. This way, you will build credibility with the press, and subsequently, the public.
- Proactive planning is important – Preparation for a worst-case scenario will only benefit an organization when it happens. Pressure usually builds in crisis situations to bend the truth, so be poised to talk openly about an issue. If you are unsure of how ready your organization is, take the PadillaCRT Crisis IQ
- Tell the truth – Are you sensing a pattern? With instant access to information, the truth is tougher to hide. Being proactive with the truth, in a crisis situation or not, will build credibility with the press and public.
As a health care communicator, stand for the integrity of an industry based in trust and betterment of the common good. Communicate truth, because there is not a viable alternative.