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Communications and Obamacare: Promises Burned, Opportunities Missed

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Effective communications -- great leadership communications -- involves setting appropriate expectations. Whenever an enterprise launches a communications campaign, it is making promises. "Buy this product; it will improve your life." Or, "Support our cause; we will change our community." If the promise is too small, no one will be interested. If the promise is too big, you risk fueling great disappointment and even more damaging anger.

The latter seems to be part of what happened with the launch of the healthcare.gov website, the new portal at the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act. By several news accounts, the White House PR machine was in high gear in the days before the site's debut, touting its elegant design, simplicity of use, and capacity to handle the large numbers of people who would sign up. Unfortunately, the product -- in this case, the communications vehicle -- did not live up to its promise.

Only time will tell about the ultimate popularity or possible effect of the initiative; but, as was noted in The Huffington Post this past weekend, the result here is not only great damage to the reputation of the initiative -- but a blot with possible sticking power on the entire Obama administration.

The PR that preceded the launch of healthcare.gov reminds us just how important it is to make sure any communications effort does not get too far ahead of the product or cause being promoted. So how do you avoid the quagmire?

Hold hands with the developer/producer/product manager. (And make them share.)

Far too often the PR and communications team is removed from the product development team. When they craft their outreach campaigns, they have to trust that the product and program teams are sharing the whole story about a rollout, and in this case, the delivery channel. If they fail to stay in close touch, or one side holds back from the other...well, congressional hearings could be at the end of the story.

Anticipate the worst. (And plan for it.)

Bear Bryant famously said, "In life, you'll have your back up against the wall many times' you might as well get used to it." The man who consistently turned the prospect of defeat into victory could see around the corners and anticipate how badly his team might be bruised while trying to score. Same goes for public relations: expect greatness, but plan to be beat up along the way. If you do, you'll moderate expectations, resist braggadocio, and maybe think of new ways to make some really good lemonade.

Test, test, test. (Then test it again.)

The communications professional is in an exceptional position to encourage beta testing of any initiative or vehicle. Just as the focus group can give you insights into a prospective ad campaign, a testing control group can help you anticipate what will be well received, and what will flop -- or even break down. If the product development team resists, explain to them that great communicators can't possibly promote what hasn't been experienced or seen in action firsthand.

Create back-channels for communicating progress (or problems.)

In media relations and public relations, it's critical to build relationships in advance -- not just to exploit the most popular mass communications vehicles as unpaid promoters, but to help mitigate the bad news of program skips, product misses, and/or the failure to live up to expectations. Trust a few trustworthy media gatekeepers with valuable insights before the launch, and you might find a more sympathetic response when asking for help in communicating next steps.

Step up and acknowledge the problem. (And do that early).

From Apple to Tylenol to "New Coke," some of public relations history's biggest flops failed to sink a corporate giant, in large part, because the founder of the big goof stepped up, said "sorry," took responsibility, promised to mitigate the damage, and -- even better -- make sure it never happens again. And they did it before the opposition could roll out their big PR guns to try to reverse the damage control efforts.

Fix it. (Fast.)

It sounds simple -- maybe even simplistic. But the faster you implement a fix, the faster you'll be forgiven. With thousands (or millions) already spent on product development (like websites that don't fully work), there's a great temptation to implement paper-clip and duct-tape fixes. But your reputation is priceless, and taking steps to make amends, before even more people turn away or, worse, grow infuriated with your enterprise, is too costly for any entity to contemplate in the long-term.

Keep Talking. (As much as possible.)

Let your key audiences know what you are doing to remedy the situation. In tough situations, it's tempting to retreat. There will be times when you cannot talk about certain aspects but don't go radio silent. Explain why you can't comment about a particular matter and then share what you are able to share. And while it is important to be disciplined in your message, it is equally important not to sound robotic as if you are reading from a script. And finally, don't make any more promises that you are not sure you can keep.