Whoever coined the phrase “like taking candy from a baby” must not be a parent. As anyone who has ever had to take something away from a child, customer, or employee can attest, it is not peaceful or quiet. Removing privileges or bearing bad news is a joyless task for everyone involved. The next few weeks will be interesting to watch as this theory is put to the test in Washington.
As Congress finalizes its plan for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many politicians will be portrayed as villains. As controversial and complicated as this law has been since its conception, there is no denying that many Americans have benefited, and are now about to lose their benefits.
Legislators will surely face criticism as they put their repeal plan in motion, along with a significant communications challenge. Regardless of the problems with ACA, the negativity will be hard to shake because taking something away is never easy, even if it is justified.
ACA critics have leaned on facts when arguing against the legislation. Evidence shows that the law is too expensive for the government, bankrupting doctors and hospitals, and diminishing the quality of medical care nationwide. In contrast, supporters have focused their argument on emotions, highlighting the law’s inclusiveness and accessibility. And when it comes to winning a public relations battle, emotion trumps facts every time.
At some point all PR professionals will deal with the communications challenges associated with delivering bad news or taking something away. While uncomfortable, these decisions are sometimes unavoidable. Companies cut costs, employee benefits disappear, ideas fail, projects lose money, investigations are launched, and teenagers get grounded.
So what can the GOP do to soften the blow and protect their public image?
- Frame an alternative more attractively. Focus the conversation on the benefits of the action instead of what is being taken away. The GOP should focus on the “replace” in the “repeal and replace” slogan.
- Demonstrate real personal sacrifice. The GOP needs to show that the sacrifice is being shared collectively. Legislators should focus their discussions on how they will help people in their district continue to receive the best medical care.
- Identify with your audience. Connecting with the audience is fundamental to successfully communicating. People are always subconsciously thinking “how does this impact me?” Legislators should learn their constituencies’ concerns, and address them as directly and personally as possible.
- Listen. Often communicators think only about their own words, but being a good listener is just as important. Adversaries raise their voices when they feel they are not being heard. The GOP needs to demonstrate that they hear the concerns of ACA supporters.
- Present ideas and resources. Presenting ideas for a path forward can go a long way toward redirecting negative energy. Americans want to feel confident that the repeal of ACA will not lead to even greater problems. The GOP must communicate that there is a plan in place for replacing the law with something more effective.
The GOP’s strategy for addressing ACA repeal challenges should be the same as any other situation where someone in a position of authority has to take something away, levy a punishment, or deliver bad news. In cases like these, the facts will do little to make the situation better—but strategic communications can make all the difference.