Five communication strategies amid political crisis

We live in a society dominated by mixed messages and hypersensitivity, which is even emanating from the White House, where accusations of “fake news” are routinely leveled against the news media.

To maintain credibility in this head-spinning environment, the need for accurate, honest communications has never been more important. Unfortunately, the highly polarized political climate in which we live and work has created hesitancy by some organizations — particularly those in health care that rely heavily on Medicare, Medicaid and other government funding — to be critical of federal policies or executives within the administration.

There are legitimate fears of financial repercussions, government investigations — and even being on the receiving end of nasty presidential tweets. Political divisiveness over the future of health care has left a wake of curiosity and concern, especially as it relates to loss of coverage and the financial implications of federal reimbursement cuts. 

So, how do organizations communicate amid this chaos? Here are five ways.

1. Be careful

Any communications conducted in this environment is accessible to elected officials and all levels of government. Trumpeting criticism will make organizations vulnerable to scrutiny by political leaders and public interest groups. Understand that there may be blow back from elected officials, their supporters and other constituencies who feel strongly about a topic.

The recent handwringing over the replacement of the Affordable Care Act is a prime example. Despite some of Obamacare’s underlying flaws, providing health coverage and access to 22 million previously uninsured Americans over the past four years was the right thing to do. The challenge has been to communicate this in a way that doesn’t become the target of social media posts or criticism from elected officials who are integral to an organization’s mission.

2. Be clear

Regardless of the topic, clear messages are essential. Fake news does exist, unfortunately sometimes generated by government officials. The general public consumes information in small bites and from questionable sources. Be as articulate as possible — clearly and quickly — when discussing the benefits and pitfalls of local, state or federal proposals on health care providers.

3. Do your homework

Communication is an opportunity to educate consumers. Attention spans are short. Misinformation looms large. Helping people to truly understand the impact of government policies is quite challenging. People generally don’t investigate legislative initiatives. It’s important to intelligently discuss the impact of proposals coming out of Washington or Albany.

4. Home comes first

It’s crucial to communicate good and bad news with employees and internal audiences first. You want to control the message to the greatest degree possible and have your most important audiences hear it without a media filter. Remember that internal audiences are your organization’s best ambassadors. They can help communicate your message with clarity and authority, provided they are informed first.

5. Understand media

Relationships are so valuable when it comes to the news media. Many reporters are lay people. They often have little expertise on the topics they are writing about and are educating themselves on the fly, all while facing deadline pressure. 

Assume they know nothing. Speaking to reporters is an opportunity to educate and promote your organization’s goals. This helps develop credibility and trust. The tone of news coverage typically reflects how well a reporter knows a spokesperson — it tends to be more positive working with people they know versus a stranger.

Terry Lynam has more than 30 years of experience as a communications professional in the nonprofit, private and public sectors. As senior vice president and chief public relations officer, he oversees all media relations for Northwell Health. He was previously a communications executive at Lockheed Martin, a press officer to former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and a newspaper reporter.