“When normal Americans know who the Secretary of the Treasury is, that’s not
— Will Durst comedian

Do Americans know who the Secretary of Health and Human Services is yet?*

It’s been an intense week of on-again, off-again Congressional votes to rescue financial markets. Two remarks this week generated that Oprah lightbulb moment for me. First, I listened to Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, and currently Dean of the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley (and an advisor to Barack Obama). Tyson spoke with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on 29th September about the financial crisis. Here’s a bit of the transcript:

TYSON (to Maddow): “You know, all along, this has been called a bailout bill. It’s such a misnomer. We are in the midst of a massive credit contraction. It’s strangling the economy. It’s making it impossible for businesses to borrow, to keep their businesses going. It’s making it impossible for students to borrow, to keep their loans going, and homeowners to stay in their homes….The economy is being strangled by a credit contraction. The stock market is telling us we are going to have lost incomes, lost revenues, lost production, a real severe slowdown, if we don’t do something.

MADDOW: Should regular, non-Wall Street-employed folks be concerned right now about our retirement funds, about mutual funds, even our cash in the bank?

TYSON: You know, what people should be concerned about is their income and their jobs, because the credit contraction means that employers, companies, cannot continue operations at their current levels. They cannot get the credit they need to keep their operations moving. The greatest danger now is a real economy recession. Stock markets can go up and down over time, retirement accounts can go up and down over time. The key thing is to get the economy safe from what looks like to be a bit of a serious recession.

MADDOW: I feel like listening to you talk about this as a credit contraction, listening to you put at it in those kinds of terms, I feel like I’m hearing more easy to understand sense about how big the problem is than I have been hearing out of all the talk on Washington and particularly out of the White House. I wonder, if this is, in part, a communication problem on the part of people who are supposedly addressing the problem in Washington. Polls show that Americans really hate the idea of this bailout. Maybe it just hasn’t been sold right?

Now, the other half of the lightbulb inspiration: this, from an editorial in this week’s (29 September 08) Advertising Age magazine, a weekly news source for ad and marketing people. The editorial is called, “Administration Failing at Communicating Bailout Plan,” and here’s the bit that complement’s Dean Tyson’s observations:

It may seem clear to those in Washington and on Wall Street that a taxpayer-funded bailout is the only way to prevent the economy from going into a death spiral. But the taxpayer is going to need some convincing….So far no one seems to be making a concerted effort to answer them in a way accessible to the public. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernanke were hauled before Congress last week to explain themselves and their plan. They didn’t do such a great job of convincing the politicians. It’s hard to see how they’ll do a better job convincing voters….the administration is going to have to do a much better job of selling it….This isn’t to say that a campaign of 30-second ads is called for. Thirties aren’t built for issues this complex, and wasting money on TV commercials would raise immediate questions about how that $700 billion is being spent. Mr. Paulson, Mr. Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and anyone else who is planning to vote for the bailout plan need to clearly state to the taxpayers why it’s in their best interest that this be approved. Pamphlets should be hitting mailboxes (or e-mail boxes) explaining “What It Means for You.”….The powers that be are going to have to put a little more lipstick on this pig.

Why is Health Populi featuring these two remarks in a blog that’s so squarely focused on health care? Because we who work in the health arena can learn much from the lack of clear communication plaguing the past two weeks’ discussions both on Capitol Hill and via the media.

It’s common knowledge (at least to Health Populi readers) that health literacy and health plan literacy are major obstacles to Americans achieving quality health outcomes and accessing the care they need — even when they are covered for it, as is the case with health plan illiteracy. You can study up quickly on these issues if you wish by reading my posts on these topics:

Consumer dis-engagement: health plan illiteracy persists
Health clarity: addressing health illiteracy
Personalizing health plans: a view from Deloitte
The cost of health illiteracy.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Health care and costs are integrally bound up in the larger U.S. economy. Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have deep thoughts about what health reform should look like in the U.S. (see The Commonwealth Fund’s analysis here, published earlier this week). How health reform ideas are communicated to Americans is as much a marketing exercise as the selling of rescuing the nation/world out of the liquidity crisis is — and the latter was gotten wrong, big-time.

The succes

s of the Harry and Louise anti-Clinton reform campaign was based on its understanding of how to sell soap. The creators of that campaign well-understood Marketing 101 (and 102, as well). (see the original Harry and Louise on the right).

Health reformers should take heed from both Tyson and the Ad Age editors’ recommendations. Think about who you’re talking to. Put your message(s) in meaningful, understandable, empathizable terms. We’re not selling soap — but we’re selling Big Ideas and the future of the U.S. health system. Americans in the main ‘get’ how difficult accessing and paying for health care is these days. Donning that hat — and communicating so you’re heard and understood — will be a necessary competence in the coming months and years as the economy and health care get their due on the front political burner.

*The current Secretary of HHS is Michael Leavitt. Prior to being Secretary of DHHS, he was head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and served three terms as Governor of Utah.