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!


Google-lytics Part 2: Using Google AdWords to find Keywords for SEO

3 Feb

I’m taking a Social Media/online tools class at DePaul this quarter and one of the things we’ve worked on is using free Google searches and tools to help businesses select their target audiences and find the best point of connection with them. I’m going to call this series “Google-lytics”  but I’m hoping to make a small series of posts on this and related topics. One of my Delta Gamma sisters, Sarah Eutsler, has a small business she’s just started, On a Good Note Designs, and I’ll be using her as a case study.

So in the last post we discussed how Sarah can use the advanced search features on Google to learn more about the internet conversation going on about and around her market and how to find bloggers to reach out to. Today’s post is going to focus on increasing Search Engine Optimization with keywords.

When you type a search into Google, one of the many many reasons a page shows up, is because the word of phrase you typed was in the content of the page. But how do you know what people are typing when looking for your product? How does Sarah know exactly what words people are using. What if no one in the world can spell stationary correctly, so they avoid using it in a search, but its the only word she uses on her webpage to describe her project? She’s going to have a much harder time getting found than if she does a little research and adjusts her page to reflect the mindset of her audience.

Don’t lose hope, this is surprisingly easy to do using Google Adwords (and even if you are not an industry person, it will make you seem impressive that you’re at least somewhat familiar with how Google Adwords works!) You can search for “Google Adwords” (ironically), or use the url

Once there I typed “note card” in the keyword box and the results came up. The results tell you a phrase, how high the competition among other websites is for that phrase, what the number of global monthly searches are for that phrase and the local monthly searches for it. I sorted them by competition (low being first) and started looking for phrases with the most local hits.

Google Adwords results

Unfortunately for note cards there’s a lot of heavy competition key phrases but “write a thank you” has low competition and 90,500 local hits, “send a thank you” had low competition and 33,100 local monthly hits.

Sarah might want to consider adding a paragraph to the plain “note cards” page about how they’re perfect for writing a quick thank you, or easily personalized when writing thank you notes. The phrase “thank you note” had 823,000 local monthly searches, so she might want to put that somewhere in the top paragraph of the home page. She could also say something to the effect of “Struggling to write a meaningful thank you letter? Make it brief and sweet with a custom thank you card” since the phrase “thank you letter” had 1,000,000 local monthly hits.

If you scroll over the phrase and click the icon the black arrow points to (btw, I just started using Jing to do the screen shot and I love it!) it will open a new window showing you insights into that keyword or phrase.I clicked on “write a thank you” and this was what I consider the most useful of the insights for Sarah.

Sarah might have assumed that people search for “write a thank you” the most right after Christmas, but from these insights we see that is no longer the case. People search in May and early June, most likely to write thank yous for graduation and wedding gifts.

Say Sarah does all this research and makes adjustments to the pages on her website to optimize her appearance in search queries for note cards, how can she tell if it’s working? A little something called Page Rank. To save on word’s I’m going to steal an image from Ben Foster‘s powerpoint slides explaining how it works.

Explanation of Page Rank

Since Sarah’s page is brand new, unfortunately her Page Rank is 0. A competitor,, has a Page Rank of 5 while Hallmark has Page Rank of 6. The influence of the page grows exponentially with the rank. Meaning a Rank of 2 may be a page that’s 10x more influential than a Rank of 1, but a Rank of 3 is 100x more, a Rank of 4-a thousand, etc. So while it may look like Hallmark is not that much better than Fabulous Stationary, FS has a long way to go.
And here’s a great infographic on how to best lay out a page for SEO optimization

Infographic of the Perfectly Optimized Page

Google-lytics: Part 1-Using Google’s FREE search features to find your audience.

29 Jan

I’m taking a Social Media/online tools class at DePaul this quarter and one of the things we’ve worked on is using free Google searches and tools to help businesses select their target audiences and find the best point of connection with them. I’m going to call this series “Google-lytics”  but I’m hoping to make a small series of posts on this and related topics. One of my Delta Gamma sisters, Sarah Eutsler, has a small business she’s just started, On a Good Note Designs, and I’ll be using her as a case study.

Part 1 is all about something you think you know how to do: Search. Yes, you open your browser and start typing away, letting Google autocomplete help you out, but there’s so much more you can do.

Sarah’s company specializes mostly in cute notecards, some personalized cards, and more recently wedding invitations/save the dates. When you type “note card designs” into Google, you get this. Notice over 83 million results, what does that mean to Sarah?

Screen shot of a google search for notecards

What Sarah can do is click “more search tools” on the bottom left and select “related searches”. This will help her learn how people look for note cards online.

Screen shot of related searches for "note cards"

So instead of just looking for “note cards” people look for things like “custom note cards” or blank or personalized note cards. When choosing keywords, this will be important information for Sarah to have. (but we won’t get to that until my post for Part 2.)

Now that she knows what some of the terminology out there is, Sarah wants to know what the online note-cards community is like. Who is her competition, who are note-card enthusiasts she can reach out to, and what words are these people using when discussing note-cards? (do they even use “note-cards” or “note cards” or “notecards”?)
When you’re in Google you can scroll to the bottom to find “advanced search”. Here you can enter in specific phrases to search for, things you want to exclude, and keywords. Here I decided Sarah does not want to know about people selling templates or giving “how to” advice so it was removed from the search results. With the words I chose (and by playing around with others) Sarah can see who else is using the same words she has in her name and on her website and how they’re using them.

Screenshot of Google Advanced Search Results for Note Cards

Once you submit the search, you can expand the options on the left sidebar to specify what kind of content to search for. Sarah can search for blogs that fit this criteria and pitch them public-interest stories related to her business. One of my blog results was this site which is a blog of an artist/writer with an interest in cats who just happened to write a post on Valentine’s Day cat cards. Since Sarah includes pictures of her cat on her webpage and sometimes writes anecdotes about cats in her blog, this could be a perfect connection for Sarah to make.

In Part 2, we’ll look at Keywords to maximize search optimization and how to use Google AdWords to select the best keywords with the lowest competition.

If you want to do some searching on your own, there are a number of free tools that you can use. (and some of them that I’ll be posting about) Here’s a list, courtesy of my professor Ben Foster.

Google Search options

Thirsty Thursday-Back on Track

22 Dec

I decided I need to add some sort of regularity to this blog, and instead of feeding it a Jamie Lee Curtis-promoted yogurt, I came up with Thirsty Thursdays. On Thursdays I will post any interesting blog posts, tweets, articles, or anything else that people thirsty for marketing/PR insights would (hopefully) be interested in reading.

Again I apologize for being so absent the past few Thursdays. Today I thought I’d write about the CSO and my mother.
This past Saturday my mother and I went to the CSO for Mahler’s 6th. First off, kudos to the CSO’s call center team for convincing me to buy a 5-concert subscription for seats on the ground floor F 15 &17. I knew I was doomed when as he cheerfully chatted me up the salesman asked “So Kathryn, you’ve been to a lot of great performances with us, have you ever sat on the ‘Ground Floor’?” What made their scheming ways more complete was the fact that the tickets left where I wanted them are in different seating sections. So my seat costs about $15 more a concert than my mother’s (since I bought them, it’s my seat). This was our second concert in the series and we’re still adjusting to life in the front.

We noticed that the lights never dim on us where we’re sitting. It’s a little strange when they start the concert or come back from intermission because it feels like they just jump right in. We’re also enjoying being able to see the side of the conductor’s face and debating how old some of the cello player’s tuxedos might be.

A favorite to watch on this trip was the aging Jewish grandma playing the Celesta. Leading up to both hammer blows she would sit there with her sheet music on her lap avidly counting rests and a few measures before would take time to plug up both her ears and wince so that even if you weren’t very familiar with the piece, you knew something was coming. Even more amusing was the fact that the hammer was played by Cynthia Yeh, principal percussionist who is maybe 4 feet tall wielding, as you can see in the video, a 6-foot hammer. She did it pretty well but the bounce back from the hammer nearly knocked her down.

Theatrics aside, the concert was spectacular and I was especially struck (uh oh, a hammer pun), by James Matheson’s Violin Concerto. The work was co-commissioned by the CSO and the LA Philharmonic and was composed specifically for the CSO’s principal second violin, Baird Dodge, Matheson’s former college roommate and longtime friend. I won’t get too into the musical aspects of it since this is an arts marketing blog, not a music critiquing blog, but in the beginning of the program book they did a “Behind the Scenes” feature on Dodge and Matheson and there was a quote in it from Matheson that I think is so very important to the arts if they want to survive the digital age and the challenge of competing with pop music.

“Without new works entering the repertoire we run the danger that audiences will eventually lose interest in what we, as classical musicians, do. So continuously revitalizing the orchestral repertoire with new works is actually essential to drawing in new audiences and keeping orchestras alive as fully living, breathing organisms. ” -James Matheson.

Those two sentences may not seem like much to someone who doesn’t understand classical music culture. But they’re really important. When an orchestra is planning their season, it’s so tempting to just put all heavy hitters (Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, etc) and works that everyone knows and loves because they guarantee that the seats will get filled. But if everyone did that every season, orchestras would very rapidly decay. I admit even I looked at this program and thought “oooo Mahler. Oh, but first we have to listen to some crummy new music before the Mahler.” I ended up however, really enjoying the ties that the piece had back to Mahler along with the aspects that made it new and modern. It’s in our nature to be drawn to music that we are familiar and comfortable with, and it is the job of the orchestra to force us to discover new things and to leave our comfort zone.

If you want a little more information on the musical aspects of the Matheson piece then you can read John von Rhein’s review here.

Thirsty Thursday Apology

15 Dec

Sorry I have been absent. Christmas in retail gets a little crazy. But I think this is going to be a great movie and it’s enough like my life that I don’t know if I should love it or run away screaming from it



Thirsty Thursday-There isn’t one this week really, sorry.

1 Dec

I decided I need to add some sort of regularity to this blog, and instead of feeding it a Jamie Lee Curtis-promoted yogurt, I came up with Thirsty Thursdays. On Thursdays I will post any interesting blog posts, tweets, articles, or anything else that people thirsty for marketing/PR insights would (hopefully) be interested in reading.


So in a few minutes I will be getting in the car and driving to Midway to catch my flight to Charleston for my well-deserved vacation with the fiance. Thank you Southwest for your superdeal back in October that makes my roundtrip only cost $151.


I promise that next Thursday I will write all about my trip. I am thinking I will write about Zerve, the evil corporate tourism machine that runs Charleston. Keep on eye on next week’s post to learn more.

Thirsty Gobble Thursday

24 Nov

I decided I need to add some sort of regularity to this blog, and instead of feeding it a Jamie Lee Curtis-promoted yogurt, I came up with Thirsty Thursdays. On Thursdays I will post any interesting blog posts, tweets, articles, or anything else that people thirsty for marketing/PR insights would (hopefully) be interested in reading.
Happy Thanksgiving! This is one Thirsty Thursday where, per tradition, I will definitely be playing up the thirsty side. I am done with my first quarter of grad school, yay! I don’t know what grade I got on my advertising presentation but go ahead and check out the awesomeness of our I-Go Plans Book. Sorry you have to download the pdf, but it’s just too huge a document to put on here.

(The awesomeness of the ads/layout of the book needs to be credited to Jen Wright)

So browse through it and enjoy, while I go stuff myself with Turkey and Vodka.

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