Deadly Spin – Wendell Potter’s dizzying revelations on Corporate PR and the Health Care Industry

27 Feb

For my Communications Law & Ethics course we had to write a review on Wendell Potter’s Deadly Spin. I highly recommend reading this book, but be careful about taking it too literally. Like the Bible, sometimes it’s more important to understand the message behind the stories than to believe them word for word.

Wendell Potter's Deadly Spin

In his Whistle-Blowing novel, Deadly Spin, Wendell Potter routinely gives examples of “spin” he was asked to create for problems or situations facing the Health Care Industry, and he was good. I was fascinated to discover that even though he sets up these samples as examples of horrible and almost blatantly dishonest spin, I found myself buying into them. His knowledge of Public Relations tools and the insides of the Health Care Industry are truly astounding. I was concerned when stating this book that it would be a tell-all, slanderous, hate-filled rampage of an embittered ex-employee seeking to win some fame for himself while bashing his former employers. I was happy to discover that this was not the case. While the book is tinted with Potter’s current emotional and ethical state, it comes across as a straightforward explanation of what he saw and did for the good of his company. Some may criticize Potter for citing few outside sources, especially when making comparisons to other industries that he is not a part of. I did not see this as detrimental to what he was trying to accomplish since the book is presented primary as a personal reflection.

After a brief and interesting, if a bit unnecessary chapter on his background, Potter jumps into the dirty secrets of the Health Care Industry’s PR professionals. He uses Michael Moore’s movie Sicko to describe how the industry prepares preemptive strikes on potential troublemakers. Potter explains how a team of top insurance executives paid an informant to report on the premier of Sicko both for the content and the reaction of the audience. Before the movie was even available to the general public, the Insurance industry was creating plans to attack the movie and to undermine Moore’s credibility. The movie did not live up to the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the insurance companies ended up not needing many of the tools they had in place. Potter explains that they did not consider their plans a waste, because it was a warm-up to the health reform debates that would take place after the (2008) election.  While this chapter was very interesting and a great way to get the book moving, the Mission Impossible feeling that Potter gives to the Industry’s actions may be a bit overboard.

Aside from the Sicko example, Potter gives at least three other important case studies highlighting the devastating impact of the Health Care Industry’s greed on American citizens, and their great skill at making Americans believe that the industry is on the side of good. The example chapters are a little less cohesive than others as Potter seems to wander through his memory of the experience. While interesting and important to his main arguments, these chapters take on the feeling of a memoir tinted by the author’s current perspective. Especially given his obvious strong feelings regarding the job he was doing and the terrible things that he was in essence “covering up”, it seems surprising that it took him so long to reach this the ethical and moral epiphany. This makes the writing seem a little bit less credible. Potter writes about some of his experiences as if he were an outsider, writing about someone else’s life. If Potter is trying to absolve himself of his “crimes”, this might be better done by taking the time to give more details on the thoughts that he had at the time and to really explore his mindset and how he had bought in to the company’s propaganda, instead of just telling the readers that the further along the path he got, the more he drank and pretended it didn’t happen. While this is a difficult area for an author, painting his past self so black and his current self as so virtuous can be off-putting to the reader.

While some readers may not find Potter’s recounting of his life or his detailed history of the healthcare industry necessary, the chapters Perception Is Reality, It’s All About The Money, along with his concluding chapter, Spinning Out Of Control are full of valuable information and warnings to all of us. In these chapters, Potter gives the reader a drive-through lesson in the more sinister PR tools, gives more examples of them in use, and describes how the decay of the print newspaper has helped contribute to the rise of spin. Those working in the newspaper industry might be a bit outraged by the claims Potter makes regarding their profession. In his final chapter he talks about how easy it was for him to pitch reporters a story and get them to write exactly what he wanted. He claims that because newspapers are in decline and have less staff, reporters have less time to fact check and verify information on their own; that they were always grateful to him for providing information that was so easy to make into a story.

Deadly Spin is a book that should appeal to almost any reader. It does not go so deeply into details of the Health Care Industry as to alienate those who do not have an interest, nor does the reader come away from it feeling that it has no meaning to their life. While some people may not be concerned about Health Care, in any industry at any company, similar tactics are being used to persuade public opinion. At the end of the book, Potter offers as a rule of thumb for spotting spin “The cliché that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably I, is generally true.”   This cliché could possibly be applied to Potter himself. While the book did educate me in a fairly pain-free way on an industry that I had little prior knowledge or interest in, it is highly unlikely that all the answers are presented here, in this one text, in a perfectly unbiased manner. Given the information about his past and ethics (or lack thereof) that Potter himself explains in the book, I would not advise readers to take this book as a literal, unbiased “telling it like it is”. Instead I would suggest they use it as a warning that these “spinners” are so good at spinning, that even while writing about the evils of it, they’re doing it!

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