How Not to Sell Your Policies to the Public

(Dreamstime image: Roman Shyshak)
Too many politicians have become addicted to empty, buzzword-filled rhetoric.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the chairman of the GOP House Conference, the arm of the House Republican caucus devoted to communicating and promoting its message. She’s the fourth-ranking House Republican, and she delivered the well-received Republican response to the State of the Union in 2014 (never an easy mission).

Here is a tweet her team sent on Tuesday about a piece of health-care legislation Republicans have been pushing this year:

Following health-care policy is part of my job, so I had a better shot at understanding this message than most people who read it, because I’m passingly familiar with the 21st Century Cures Act. But I really don’t know what McMorris Rodgers is talking about, or how it’s supposed to persuade people of the merits of the bill. Is “personalized medicine” referring to genetically tailored treatments for serious diseases such as cancer — one of the hotter areas of biotech research recently, as I understand it? Or does it refer to patient-centered health care — a concept Republicans like to highlight when discussing Obamacare replacements?

I figured out it’s the former, but what is the average American supposed to think upon reading this tweet? “Ah, ‘personalized medicine.’ Personalized things are good. I like this bill”? “I wish I had more research collaboration in my life”?

I know, it’s just one tweet. But it’s a great example of the kind of empty, jargon-laden rhetoric that politicians spend way too much time churning out. In my former life as an editor, I received countless op-eds from Republican politicians that used terms like “personalized medicine.” It’s an editor’s job to, as best one can, get rid of these words and replace them with something more meaningful and accessible. No one’s writing is flawless, but it’s remarkable to see this bad habit from people whose jobs ostensibly revolve around communicating to actual voters.

The point of communications and messaging should not be to replace policy jargon with marginally more mellifluous buzzwords.

One lesson all politicians should take from Hillary Clinton’s extended struggles against Bernie Sanders and her subsequent loss to Donald Trump is that if you want to win elections, you should try saying things plainly, with words and concepts voters actually understand and desire. The point of communications and messaging should not be to replace policy jargon with marginally more mellifluous buzzwords. It should be to say that a policy measure (e.g., eliminating restrictions on research-sharing) will do something people actually care about (e.g., curing cancer), and to explain why and how it will do so, in the simplest possible terms.

I’m not at all trying to pick on Cathy McMorris Rodgers or her broader communications strategy. She actually had a fantastic series of tweets on Wednesday about a seven-year-old kid who hopes 21st Century Cures becomes law. (Seriously, go read it.) But she is proof that even politicians with seemingly unlimited potential (as a mother and an accomplished legislator, McMorris Rodgers could be a rockstar spokesman for Republicans) fall prey to jargon-itis.

“Well,” you might say, “communication is hard, there’s not always an amazing story to be told.” I sympathize, and my work is far from perfect — sometimes you just want to sling some buzzwords and be done with it. But there’s really no value added in that; there is always a more direct way to make your case.

Part of the problem may stem from an understandable temptation to show the TED talkers and Aspen Institute attendees of the world that, yes, Republicans know and care about the same things they do: personalized medicine and “STEM education” and “innovation agendas” and such. But the TED talkers and Aspen Institute attendees of the world are a vanishingly small group in electoral terms, they’re probably not very sympathetic to conservatives in the first place. The successful Republican politicians of our generation — Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Donald Trump — talked to the voters, not the chattering classes.  

The 21st Century Cares‎ Act, as it happens, is a great chance for Republicans to show they believe that there are good things the federal government can do to help Americans who are fighting horrible diseases or have family members who are doing so. Republicans, I assume, are pushing the bill not because they harbor special love for personalized medicine and research collaboration, but because they think it’s going to save lives and help cure cancer.

So why not just say that?

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.


The Latest