Friday, August 21, 2009

Social media failing health care debate. Turn on the TV.

It's painful to watch. President Obama makes speech after speech detailing the rational argument for a health care overhaul. His opponents serially attack elements of the proposal creating fear, uncertainty and doubt among much of the population. Those opponents offer few meaningful alternatives for fixing the situation. Liberals are livid that "red meat radio" mis-characterizes the issues and distorts the facts. Conservatives worry that they will be left on the sidelines of a liberal stampede. The cycle repeats.

Social media and the larger blogosphere, key drivers of Obama electoral success, are disappointing in their ability to influence this debate. This should not be surprising. Most of social media vehicles are self-reinforcing in nature - people who share common interests or perspectives talking to one another. The "lunch bucket" voter who might genuinely benefit from a health care overhaul is not hearing how he or she could benefit. The progressive, hell bent on a public option, is not hearing from those who sincerely believe it will ultimately subsume private options. We're effectively at a rhetorical standoff in the digital universe on this issue.

Social media was a potent tool for rallying supporters to elect the president. Surveying my in box, it's clear the Obama Administration is attempting to leverage social media again on this issue. One problem: the health care debate is a very different animal. The Democrats hold the White House and majorities in both branches of congress. The base is rallied. If Obama genuinely wants consensus, he needs those who are not his supporters to actually hear his argument.

This is where good old-fashioned traditional media could be more effective than the cool digital stuff. Imagine a nationally televised debate (or series of debates) where the President spends an hour sparing with a notable Republican (or health care industry leader) on the health care issue. Just the spectacle of a real human-to-human debate might cause us to look up from Huffington or Hannity to see what's going on. Remember that well over 50 million viewers tuned into each of the most recent Presidential debates.

A televised debate could provide the one element sorely missing in the health care conversation: drama. Sominex would be envious of the sedative powers of the President’s most recent New York Times op-ed piece making the case for health care reform – the boilerplate for his recent speeches. What’s needed is the drama of a heated exchange or a “gotcha” moment on national TV.

Most importantly, a debate could raise the level of dialogue from rumors, innuendo and finger pointing to a serious, thoughtful exchange of ideas. A well-viewed debate could provide a common context and language for more productive "water cooler" debates in our offices the next day. That’s the only route I see to any form of consensus. In the end, consensus may not be a realistic goal. Regardless of which way the health care issue is ultimately resolved, it would be nice for most citizens to at least be accurately informed.

Setting politics aside, social media excels at building enthusiasm among the like minded. It sucks at enabling dialogue between disparate perspectives.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Whole Foods' values train wreck

There's a lot of clamor today regarding Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he came out against many of the ideas contained in the Obama administration health care overhaul initiative.

Right or wrong, Mackey's POV conflicts with the leanings of many Whole Foods patrons who reportedly tend to support the Obama approach. Quite the social media furor is underway. Over 20,000 Facebook members have pledged to boycott the chain. The debate has prompted a new forum on the Whole Food website with over 14,000 posts.

The image of the original hippy store used to illustrate the "values" page on the Whole Foods site paints an image that does not line-up with the viewpoint of the CEO. Shopping at Whole Foods (and paying the significant premiums involved) is an overt values statement for most customers.

In this transparent era it would seem that either Whole Foods needs to migrate to a less progressive values position or the CEO needs to recant or even possibly resign. The current "values dissonance" will only erode the Whole Foods brand and franchise.

What would you do if you were on the Whole Foods board of directors?