Thursday, April 30, 2015

When words collide

Words are powerful things. They can buoy the fighting spirit of a beleaguered nation during its darkest hours.

They can inspire a generation to strive to achieve the unimaginable.

 They can offer comfort during a time of great sorrow.

So, they need to be chosen very carefully and with great thought, lest the entire meaning of your message get lost by your poor choice of words. This is something that is being faced right now by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, as her city faces a spasm of violence in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while in custody of the city's police force.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake during her media briefing
While speaking with reporters over this past weekend, she made the following remark:
I've made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It's a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well, and we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate.
While just about everything she said in that statement would be something that even the savviest PIO would be hard pressed to improve on, the line about giving those who wish to destroy space to do that as well will be the 14 words she will probably regret the rest of her life. Regardless of her intentions, her words will always give the impression that she gave permission for the riots to occur in the first place.

A scene from the early moments of the riot in Baltimore
Was this the only time a gaffe like this has ever happened?  Heck no. It's not the only time it happened this week. The marketing team at Anheuser Busch found itself in hot water this week it unveiled its new Bud Light labels, claiming that drinking their beer is perfect for removing the word No from your vocabulary for the night.

The label in question
While this may seem innocuous at first glance, groups concerned with alcohol-related sexual assault lambasted the company for its insensitive implications. Given recent stories where excessive alcohol consumption was linked to sexual assaults, the company backpedalled and issued an apology for the choice of words on the label.

English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy wrote that the pen is mightier than the sword. And, while this was true in the days before telegraphs, it has become exponentially more important in today's well connected world. That's why it's critical to understand what you want to communicate, and play all scenarios out in your mind to determine which words should be taboo in your messaging. 

It will keep you out of trouble for sure. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Tom. Once out of the bottle, the "genie" never goes back!