Many of the books I review deal with the potential or the achievements of social media and public relations. Deadly Spin is not one of those books. Well, I suppose it deals with achievements, but I don’t consider them positive ones. Written by a former vice-president of CIGNA, a major insurance company, this book attempts to be for the US health insurance industry what “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Insider” became for the tobacco industry.
I am lucky enough to live in Canada. That means that most of my health care costs are covered by my provincial health insurance plan. I don’t pay for doctor (or in my case, mostly nurse-practitioner) visits, or for hospital treatment. I have private health insurance which provides reimbursement for prescription drugs, vision care, dental, and the like. So the world which Potter describes is alien to me, and I’m glad from the sound of it.
Deadly Spin chronicles the life of Potter as a senior communications executive as he led efforts to oppose “socialized medicine” in the USA. He goes through a brief (and selective, I’d argue) history of public relations, and then describes a sequence of events that shattered a California family and changed the course of Potter’s life. In December 2007, a young woman named Nataline Sarkisyan died while awaiting a liver transplant and after a public campaign had shamed her insurance company into approving the transplant.
The case of Nataline Sarkisyan set off a period of soul-searching that resulted in Potter’s resignation from his job and his transformation into a consumer advocate (he later joined the Centre for Media and Democracy, a PR watchdog group that has a long history of scrutinizing the actions of PR firms, as a senior fellow specializing in health care).
The book reflects Potter’s long experience as a journalist and a communicator. The writing is solid and Potter knows how to tell a story. And while it’s beyond my knowledge to judge whether he portrays the actions of the health-insurance industry accurately or not, it’s my guess that this book had to be vetted through squadrons of lawyers to ensure it wasn’t going to result in litigation.
I walked away from Deadly Spin with a huge amount of gratitude for my own flawed but (in my opinion) far better health-care system, and with concern for both how US citizens are treated by their health-care industry and for how that industry behaves at the highest levels. If Potter’s claims are true, Deadly Spin may well be more disturbing for us flacks than The Insider. While there was a great deal of chemistry and bad science in the tawdry story of tobacco, the highly political and politicized communications strategies and tactics of Deadly Spin fall far more directly in the lap of my profession.
Deadly Spin was likely a difficult book to write. It’s part polemic (I don’t mean that in an insulting way) and part autobiography, and I’m not sure that both halves dovetail perfectly. Potter is undoubtedly well-placed to write about the use of public relations techniques in the health-care debates in the US. His personal story is also compelling. But to be honest, it feels as if he held back considerably on the effects of his work on his life. He talks about seeking advice from a former colleague and trying with no success to ignore it.
There’s a reason I couldn’t get Maxwell’s advice out of my head: I was stone sober. In previous years, I could have been consuming enough alcohol to stay sufficiently anesthetized. But I had quit drinking — on October 17, 2006, to be exact — after coming to the conclusion that I was slowly committing suicide by drinking at least a six-pack of beer every single night to keep from thinking and feeling. Even when I was buzzed, though, I couldn’t get out of my head the nagging belief that I was put on this earth to do something much more important than what I had been doing for the last twenty years. I didn’t have a clue what it might be, but I decided that I would never find out if I kept destroying my own liver.
This passage stands out as one of the few in which Potter describes the personal impact of his work life. And it feels as if there should have been more balance. He was a husband, a father. Was the alcohol enough to allow him to successfully compartmentalize his life?
I have a sense that there was a great deal of soul-searching and personal conflict in the events that led to Deadly Spin. But we see only a glimpse or two of Potter the human being in this book, and it feels a little unbalanced. In the end, it might have been better for the book to have edited even those few glimpses out.
I guess the ugliness in this book is the way in which public relations is portrayed as behaving in the health-care debate. Front groups, questionable experts, lack of transparency — all of these things are disturbing techniques and ones that discredit our profession.
I should note that Deadly Spin has met with some severe criticism from within the PR industry. The most public exchange began with a blog post by Edelman PR CEO Richard Edelman on his 6 a.m. blog.
And Potter’s been repeatedly described as someone with a “far left affiliation” and “liberal” — a dirty word in much of the US.
My argument: you need to read this book. And it needs to be used in PR education, especially in the US. Whatever the book’s flaws, the techniques he describes from firsthand experience are unacceptable, and consumers who are interested in public affairs or in health care politics would do well to read Deadly Spin very carefully.
Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans, by Wendell Potter
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