Bad Medicine: A Terrible Media Quote

December’s issue of The Atlantic features a story about the sad state of kidney dialysis in the United States.

The article points out that a quarter of all Americans who start dialysis die within a year, one of the worst fatality rates in the industrial world. The author offers numerous horror stories of dialysis centers run by unqualified staff, some with blood on equipment and insects crawling on the floor.

The government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is in charge of overseeing the nation’s dialysis centers. After a patient died at a Tennessee center that had been cited for making multiple errors, a CMS spokeswoman was asked why it took a death to close the facility:

“Please understand that this is not an easy decision,” said Jessica Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the regional office that handled the matter. “We’re not in the business of putting facilities out of business.”

That dreadful quote seems to prioritize the interests of business over human health, never something a spokesperson should say. Imagine if she had said this instead:

“I extend my deepest sympathies to the McMurry family for their tragic loss,” said Jessica Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the regional office that handled the matter. “Nothing is more important than patient safety. We’ve barred 16 dialysis centers from being Medicare providers over the past several years, which demonstrates just how serious we are about making sure dialysis centers are safe for Americans with kidney disease. But we need to do even more, and we will.”

Both quotes are presumably true. One represents CMS poorly, the other doesn’t. What separates one from the other? The second quote is aligned to the needs and concerns of the public, the first one isn’t.

Here’s the bottom line: If you’re not aligning your message to the needs and concerns of your audience, you’re going to fail as a spokesperson.