Feature PR and lobbying

Wendell Potter: Pulling the curtains back on spin

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e833 (Published 07 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e833
  1. Karen McColl, freelance writer
  1. 1Savoie, France
  1. karenmccoll{at}gmail.com

Know your “astroturfing” from your “flogs”? Former US health insurance industry insider Wendell Potter talks to Karen McColl about spin, becoming a whistleblower, and whether the government’s latest proposals will rein in the UK lobbying industry

Emily Potter

The death of 17 year old Nataline Sarkisyan, who had initially been denied a liver transplant by her health insurer Cigna, was the final straw. Before that, there had been the sight of thousands of Americans travelling hundreds of miles to a Virginia fairground to queue for hours to receive free medical care. Patients were receiving care from volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists in animal stalls and barns. Wendell Potter had had enough.

In his 19 years in the US health insurance industry, Potter was a practitioner of the “dark arts” of public relations (PR). And it’s not just the US where dubious practices are used. In December a series of news stories in the Independent exposed PR methods deployed in the UK by executives of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.1 2

Today, Potter is one of the fiercest critics of corporate public relations and lobbying, and of the US health insurance industry’s efforts to derail health reforms. When he resigned from his job as head of public relations at Cigna corporation in June 2008—soon after Nataline Sarkisyan’s death and almost a year after his visit to Remote Area Medical’s health fair in Wise County, Virginia—he did not intend to turn whistleblower. He just knew that he didn’t have it in him any more to work in the industry.

Nearly a year later he was watching television coverage of one of President Obama’s early meetings on healthcare reform, when he heard a congressman from his home state of Tennessee reiterating some of the insurance industry talking points he and his colleagues had been working …

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