Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's the message, stupid

One of the biggest stories over the past several months in the Pittsburgh region has been the impending divorce of the UPMC health system and Highmark insurance, now that the latter is buying UPMC's biggest competitor. Today the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review looked at who is winning the PR battle between these two titans, with some interesting results:

In fact, Fitting said, she believes UPMC is winning the public relations war with Highmark, which has played out in news stories, advertisements and the court of public opinion. The two entities refuse to negotiate a contract renewal, which could make UPMC's medical services too expensive for many Highmark customers after June. Highmark is buying UPMC's chief competitor, West Penn Allegheny Health System.

"I think most people are not really paying that close attention to Highmark's counter-message," Fitting said. "UPMC has ingrained in the community that the most advanced medicine is at UPMC. ... And that's why UPMC can walk away from the negotiating table."

Highmark's message tries to reflect "community sentiments about the need to preserve affordable access" to UPMC's facilities, spokesman Michael Weinstein said.

Public relations experts agree that Highmark faces a daunting challenge: People might see UPMC... as a bully, but they don't want to lose access to the system's 19 hospitals and 3,000 doctors in Western Pennsylvania.

At first, I was inclined to disagree that UPMC is winning the fight for public opinion. My guess is that if you did a content analysis of both news and opinion coverage, you'd find that UPMC has taken a serious beating, often portrayed as a monopolistic organization that makes a mockery out of its nonprofit status with huge operating revenues and handsome executive compensation. The tone of the coverage has been particularly negative from UPMC's standpoint.

But then I remembered a provocative statement, made by a speaker on an unrelated topic, at a PR measurement conference I attended this fall. It's not the tone of coverage, either negative or positive, that matters; it is simply the messages the article or broadcast conveys. If the reporter is delivering your strategic messages, then don't worry whether the article has a negative slant; similary, a positive article that doesn't provide the information you want the public to have does you no good.

From that perspective, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that UPMC is coming out on top. For one thing, Highmark is an insurance company, and as the Trib article notes, insurance companies are often seen as the perpetrator of rising health care costs. As for UPMC, well, it may have a tattered image, but think of it like Congress. Most people hate Congress, but approve of the job their own representative is doing, which is one reason incumbents get re-elected despite the institution's abysmal poll ratings. Similarly, people may hate UPMC, but they probably like their own doctor.

UPMC has consistently repeated the message that Highmark will be to blame if its members lose access to their doctors. If people believe that message, newspaper editorialists can muster all the righteous indignation they want against UPMC; it won't do Highmark a whit of good.

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