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.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site