Susan Crawford: Let's start with Wendell Potter, who after a twenty-year career as Head of Communications for Cigna decided he wanted to defrock the health insurance agency of America and wrote a terrific book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. So Wendell, let's start with you.
Wendell Potter: Thank you very much. I appreciate the introduction, and I appreciate the invitation to be here. I was in the insurance industry for twenty years but I didn’t start out that way. I didn’t start out on the dark side. I didn’t always toil there. In fact I started out as a newspaper reporter back in the dark ages. I was a reporter right out of college for a paper in Memphis, and began to cover politics and eventually wound up covering Congress and the White House and Washington.
And during those first years, not only was there no Internet but there were not even any Selectric typewriters back in 1973. I wrote my first stories on… At least in most newsrooms, I wrote my stories on a Royal typewriter and pasted them together with a glue pot. And when I was out covering a story I often would phone them in or would fax them in. You used one of one of those rotary fax machines.
But I was eventually enticed into the world of public relations, and as Susan said I spent two decades as head of corporate public relations for Humana first, and then for Cigna. And during that time I saw sea changes in both the insurance industry and the media.
When I went to work for Humana in 1989, it was mostly known at that time as a hospital company. In fact I was hired to be the PR guy for the hospital division of the company. When I joined Cigna four years later, its largest division at the time was the property and casualty business. Like Aetna, MetLife, Prudential, and Travelers, it was a multi-line insurance company, which was prevalent during the time. That’s where many of us got our health insurance if we didn’t get it from a nonprofit health insurance plan like a Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan.
But the shareholders of all these companies eventually grew intolerant of those companies’ business models. And as a result Humana had to sell its hospitals and focus exclusively on managed care because that’s where they felt the money was. And the the big multi-line insurance companies had to shed a lot of their divisions as well, to focus on one or two lines of business. Aetna and Cigna decided to focus on healthcare and the other big multi-lines went elsewhere.
By the time I left the industry four years ago, it bore little resemblance to the industry that I joined back in 1989. Similarly, the media world was entirely different two decades ago, as you all undoubtedly know. The Internet had not yet made the traditional media less relevant than it is today. As a PR guy, reporters and editors were still the gatekeepers back then for the flow of information. And when I wrote a press release, for example, I had to persuade reporters to use it. I never expected them to print it verbatim but I expected them, I hoped, that they would would use it. But it was their decision as to whether or not they would use what I was trying to sell. And when I wanted to place an op-ed in a newspaper, I would have to deal with an editor. And I had to deal with many skeptical reporters on a daily basis. There were a lot more reporters back then than there are now. To get my messages to the public, I had to get them through the media’s filter at that time.
By the time I left my job in 2008 the balance of power has shifted entirely. Because there were fewer reporters and because I no longer needed them to disseminate my messages—my spin, if you will—the balance of power has shifted to my favor and to my company’s favor. I no longer even had to talk to reporters.
I often would still get calls from reporters or emails reporters, but instead of getting on the phone or meeting a reporter in person and engaging in any kind of dialogue, I was able simply to craft a statement or a message in some way, get it vetted throughout the company, including the company’s lawyers, and email it back to the reporters. So I was essentially in charge of that relationship in ways that I hadn’t been previously. I was able to determine what I wanted to say and give them precisely what I wanted to say, and if they didn’t want it that was too bad. So I was able in that way to disseminate information and get the messages to them without running the risk of being asked a difficult question or what we called rude questions.
Today, because of the digital media, big companies are able to get their propaganda directly to their target audiences, as I was able to do. They can and they do publish and disseminate their own press releases, and their own studies, and their own position papers. All this means that the consumer is often, if not most of the time, at a big disadvantage. It’s much easier for the dark side to spread misinformation and lies—fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
And just a couple of examples of that in recent years was the dissemination of the lie that the Affordable Care Act would establish death panels. And that it would represent a government takeover of the healthcare system. Prior to the digital era it would’ve been much more difficult for the advocates of the status quo, for the insurance industry, to get that kind of fear, that kind of misleading information, out into the public domain. To the point that most polls show that Americans are doubtful if not to opposed to the Affordable Care Act. And they’re completely unaware of the fact, apparently, that a lot of what is in the law is to their benefit. So using the digital media, it has become a much more powerful means for the special interests to manipulate public opinion, to influence public policy, and to get people to vote against their own self-interest.
This is why I wrote the book Deadly Spin, to take people back behind the scenes, to show how the big corporations and the special interests are now able to do just that—to manipulate the public in ways that they’ve never been able to do before to influence public policy and to get people to vote against their own self-interest.
When there is sufficient motivation, though, when there is a groundswell of outrage, consumer advocates can force change. And we’re seeing some evidence of that. Just look at what happened to Verizon and Bank of America and Netflix when they were instituting new fees or a new change in how much they charge their customers. They had to back down because of backlash from the public, mostly via digital media.
And more recently, look what happened to the Komen Foundation and to Rush Limbaugh. Again, largely because of the digital media they’ve had to apologize. And Rush Limbaugh is losing advertisers and the Komen Foundation is losing an enormous amount of support and goodwill.
And I believe that the fact-checkers that are emerging—they’ve always been around but they are playing a more visible role, and getting I think better organized, better equipped to set the record straight. PolitiFact chose the death panels and the government takeover of healthcare as the two lies of the year in 2009 and 2010.
Most of those are, by the way, emerging or coming from traditional media. From of the Tampa Bay Times, from The Washington Post, and from The New York Times and other traditional media. Usually though, the dissemination is via their online outlets and I think that we can see more and more of that hopefully emerging in the years to come.
I’ll end with that. I think, as you all can tell, that the digital era is one that can if we’re not very careful continue this imbalance of power. And it’s not just corporate profits that are at stake but actually our way of life and our form of government. So thank you very much for what you’re doing, and for this conference and for what you can come up with. Thank you.
Truthiness in Digital Media event site