The media are no longer a channel through which good communication thrives; rather they are a vehicle that exposes increasingly bad communication.
Whether it’s government departments, major companies or public service bodies, the days when most of them knew how to speak directly to their customers or the public are over. They are drenched in their own in-house corporate or institutional jargon and, in the case of many politicians, are given media steers by people who’ve never been in the front line of journalism.
The journalist’s advantage
One of the advantages of having been a front line journalist is that during your career you’ve probably had the opportunity of meeting thousands of people from all walks of life, whether through interviewing them or over a drink in the bar. That puts you in touch with the real world. You know how people think and talk.
When I was based in Beirut as Middle East Correspondent I lived in what was arguably the most famous press hotel in the world – the Commodore. During nights at the bar I got chatting to people from a whole cross section of society – advisers to the PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Lebanese government ministers, Israeli generals who took up residence after their country invaded Lebanon and people who walked in off the street after their homes had been bombed.
In South Africa I met people from right across the country’s racial divide – from Winnie Mandela to the far-right leader Eugene Terreblanche, as well as the black residents of the townships and white people who were pro- or anti-apartheid.
Like many journalists I was privileged to see life up front in many parts of the world and to get a genuine feel for what makes people tick. That helps you when you’re writing news stories.
This probably explains why the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is one of the best communicators in politics. When he was a journalist and foreign correspondent he had to write in a way that would make his articles understood by every one of his readers. Whenever he gives interviews or writes an article now, he comes across in a very natural way. Whether or not you agree with his politics, he gets his message across in everyday language.
By contrast, other politicians come across as over-trained robots.
If I heard David Cameron and Ed Miliband, during their times as Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, mouth the words, “It’s the right thing to do” once, I must have heard it a thousand times. It’s treating the British public like idiots to believe they are going to be hoodwinked by the constant repetition of a boring mantra like this.
We had the same approach from Theresa May during the last British general election. She constantly churned out the phrase, “strong and stable leadership” when trying to spell out the reasons why she should be re-elected as prime minister. This, again, sounded to the British people like a politician regurgitating the same old political slogan time and time again, hoping it will be enough to satisfy the dimwit electorate who would be so impressed by it, they wouldn’t bother delving deeper into the actual policies the party would propose enacting if re-elected.
How it backfired!
Issues and solutions
Then there are the big international companies who distort language either to hide the truth or to make themselves sound grander.
When I returned to the UK after being overseas for the best part of two decades as a foreign correspondent, and was therefore fairly out of touch with changes to British society, the first linguistic outrage that struck me was when I heard about a major company being hit by a series of events that seriously threatened its reputation.
I could not get my head around the fact that the company in question described the situation as an “issue” rather than a “problem”. Who were they trying to kid?
An “issue” refers to something like: how the border was drawn up between India and Pakistan prior to Partition; the terms of reference applied to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; whether male Members of Parliament should or should not wear ties.
By contrast, if your company has a product recall on its hands, or a bridge you have constructed has collapsed and killed 50 people or your company’s IT system has been hacked by cyber criminals, you have a “problem” on your hands, not an “issue”.
Using the word “issue”, rather than “problem”, when something serious has happened is a deliberate ploy to make the incident look less serious in the minds of the public and, therefore, less damaging to the reputation of the company or organisation caught up in the incident.
Then I discovered corporate misuse of the word “solution”. From the excellent English teacher I had at school, I recall the word “solution” being something that resolves “a problem”.
So, the plumber who arrives at your house to fix a leaking tap is providing a “solution” to a “problem” you’ve got on your hands, as does an airline when it finds you an alternative flight if their own one is cancelled.
Consequently, I do find it odd when, as happened recently, I was driving up the motorway behind a van bearing the company’s name, and a logo advertising “carpet solutions”. Why does laying down a new carpet in someone’s house constitute a “solution”? If I’ve got tired of the beige carpet I have been living with for the last 30 years and would prefer to move over to a new colour, I don’t have a “problem” to deal with – I simply want a new carpet. End of story.
These are just two examples of how language can be misused in corporate life and subsequently be transferred to companies’ external communications.
It’s very disheartening to hear journalists occasionally buying into this language by using it themselves in their reports.
It doesn’t stop there, however.
Engaging with stakeholder synergies
The use of corporate mumbo-jumbo could have a negative effect on a company, not only when that company is in trouble, but also when they have a good news story to tell.
Let’s say the government in your country has been planning some new legislation aimed at lowering speed limits on motorways by 20%. You run a road haulage company and, from your experience, the proposed measure would result in massive traffic snarl-ups, drivers’ mileage per day being cut hugely and serious damage to the economy.
Over the last few months your company has taken the lead in marshalling opposition to the proposal from practically every haulage company in your country. You’ve been the voice of opposition. Furthermore, you’ve been very active in lobbying Members of Parliament against the measure and in having meetings with ministers or transport officials to explain how the legislation would not work.
Largely as a result of the pressure brought to bear by the haulage industry, led by your company, the government decides to do a U-turn and backs down from introducing the new motorway speed limit. Your company deserves to take a good deal of credit as a result of the government changing its mind in this way.
In the wake of the U-turn, the media report very positively with regard to the actions your company has taken to change the government’s mind. They come looking for interviews, either for a newspaper article or for TV and radio news.
The problem is, however, your spokesperson, in describing the role played by the company in influencing the government, slips into corporate-speak and, as a result, completely dilutes the impact of the message the company should be getting across.
The spokesperson will come out with something like this: “Over the past six months we have been engaging with the government”.
What on earth does that mean? “Engaging with” is arguably one of the most vacuous, meaningless phrases used by people who go in front of the media. In the case of the mythical company mentioned above, it wasn’t the fact that they were “engaging with” ministers that resulted in the government doing a U-turn. No, instead the message should be: “Over several months we’ve been knocking on the doors of government to get meetings with ministers and to make it absolutely clear to them that the new speed limit would bring Britain’s roads to a halt and unleash one of the most serious setbacks to the economy in recent years.”
Those words bring home to the public just how important a role this particular company played in changing the government’s mind. Those words have some muscle in them and leave everyone in no doubt that the case put to ministers by the company was a game-changer.
By contrast, “engaging with” suggests the company’s executives did nothing much more than send an email to the Transport Minister, attended a discussion seminar (or “focus group” as they are often called) or just mouthed platitudes during a low-level meeting.
Other phrases that don’t cut the mustard with the general public are “value added”, “synergies”, “supply chain”, “stakeholder engagement”, “innovative product” (would your company come up with a non-innovative product?) and synergies/headcount reduction (i.e. employee sackings). The public are not stupid. They see through this “camouflage language” straightaway.
If these phrases were proper use of the English language, surely we would have been taught them in school. We weren’t.
One of the reasons such language infects communications so prolifically is that comms people, either in public bodies or private companies, are very often slaves to their legal or regulatory teams.
The word goes out from these departments that spokespeople have to stick 100% to the lines that are drawn up by them. “Departing by one inch from these could result in the company facing the biggest legal trial in corporate history” often seems to be the message that’s put out.
This leaves comms staff terrified and therefore worried about translating all this legal and regulatory gobbledegook into language that viewers, listeners and readers will understand.
They need to be brave. There are very few legal and regulatory positions that cannot be decoded and expressed in everyday language without undermining an organisation’s legal safeguards.
Moreover, it’s not just external communications that can be struck down by this language contamination.
Internal communications can also be undermined. Very often I’ve spoken to employees who say that when they arrived at the company where they are currently employed it took them six months to work out what on earth colleagues were speaking about.
Getting it right
It’s for the above reasons that HarveyLeach is finding that its tutors (all ex-journalists with front-line experience) are being used increasingly to assist clients with message development. Introducing “real world” use of language helps companies in getting across to the public what they want to say in language that resonates with the man or woman in the street.
If only the CEO of United Airlines had consulted us before eventually issuing an apology after a passenger was dragged off a plane and injured by security staff. His statement said that, “No one should ever be mistreated this way”. That suggests it’s perfectly ok for United Airlines to mistreat passengers in other ways, but not in this particular way? Terrible English.
So that’s my take on why communications with the public via the media are at their lowest point to date.
Oh dear. I’ve just re-read what I’ve written above and I have to own up to a terrible linguistic transgression by me, namely when I refer on several occasion to “front line” journalists. Yes, we very often are in war zones caught in the middle of the crossfire. That doesn’t amount to the front line. The “front line” should be reserved to describe those who went “over the top” during the First World War, who invaded Europe in 1944 and who’ve risked their lives in numerous other conflicts.
Grotesque misuse of English by me!!!!!