Words Matter: Choose Them Carefully

A couple of recent headlines reinforce the point that when communicating with the media, you not only need to think about what points you want to get across, but the actual words you want to use – a point we regularly make on our Media Training courses. Words matter! One who is aware of this is Chris Stark, head of the government’s official Climate Change Committee. Faced with claims his organisation had made a mistake over its use of climate data, obviously a highly sensitive subject, Mr Stark has been revealed to have asked officials to ‘kill it with some technical language’. He knew that if a quote is made boring enough, even if technically accurate, journalists will be much less likely to use it. He was just unfortunate in that this internal exchange was revealed through a Freedom of Information request pursued by the Sunday Telegraph.

Of course this sort of tactic is hardly new – the term ‘blind ’em with science!’ is a phrase that has been around for the best part of a hundred years. So why is this deliberate use of jargon not a smart move, even though it may solve a short-term problem? Because it is a cynical ploy that just adds to the impression of a lack of transparency, which can ultimately lead to a reputational crisis for a public body or large company. It’s the sort of tactic has helped lead to the increasing levels of distrust many people feel about government and public sector organisations, as well as the larger bastions of capitalism – think of the privatised water companies and the Post Office. Sometimes issues are confidential and cannot be put in the public domain for a variety of reasons, but where possible it is usually better in the end to admit where progress hasn’t been as good as hoped, then explain what you are doing about it.

At the opposite end of the scale, a Sunday Times story highlighted the dangers of letting journalists frame the debate – effectively putting headline-grabbing words in the interviewee’s mouth. The wealth management group St James Place has been under fire from regulators and the media for paying huge bonuses for its sales people while clients are charged high fees. The headline read ‘St James’s Place is not an evil organisation’ – hardly a ringing endorsement, and one which immediately embeds that negative association in the reader’s mind. If the Chief Executive had come up with an alternative, less negative description of the business instead of denying the reporter’s accusation, he might have avoided this.

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