The use and abuse of words is an endlessly fascinating subject to anyone interested in communications. We are pleased to introduce the following guest column by Unspeak author Steven Poole:
A few years ago, a friend of mine who was working in PR used the phrase "thought leaders" in conversation. What an excellent name, I thought, picturing influential thinkers. Edward O Wilson? Ray Kurzweil? Peter Singer? Vaclav Havel? What fun to call them "thought leaders". But then my friend confessed that what she meant by "thought leaders" was, er, style journalists. I was piqued by the idea that the tasks style journalists perform might constitute "thought", and that among them could be a rank of heroic "leaders", leaders who lead more than the people who actually design and cut the dresses and shoes.
Unpacking the hidden arguments behind such language is the task I set myself in my new book, Unspeak. Have you ever noticed how the term "human resources" for personnel departments implies that humans exist to be used up and replaced when no longer useful? Did you know that the oil and coal industries successfully lobbied to change the official language of "global warming" to "climate change", because the latter sounds less frightening? Were you aware that the war on Iraq was initially dubbed Operation Iraqi Liberation, before someone noticed that this spells OIL?
PR companies were involved in much of this disinformation. Now, I don't mean to denounce PR in general. The people who work on publicity for my book, for instance, are beautiful and wise. But PR exists in a grey area between advertising, whose claims we know to take with a mountain of salt, and official communications, supposedly true. The very name, "public relations", is interesting. I am all for relations among the public. It is fun to see couples kissing in the street, or, as Louis Armstrong said, to see men shaking hands, saying "How do you do?". But "public relations" implies a friendly, two-way communication between the client and the public, when what really goes on is often a one-way massaging of the truth. Compare the American notion of "public diplomacy". Again, diplomacy implies an equal exchange of ideas culminating in friendly agreement. But "public diplomacy" is actually propaganda.
A few days ago, three prisoners in Guantanamo Bay hanged themselves, an action described by the base commander as "an act of asymmetrical warfare". Soon enough, a member of the administration weighed in, calling the suicides "a good PR move to draw attention". The person who said this was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. This kind of thing, you will notice sadly, gives PR an even worse reputation than it already has.
So could PR operate without deceptive language, without Unspeak, at all? I'd like to see it try. I submit that the decent people who work in public relations need to think seriously about how to distance their discipline from the kind of aggressively manipulative rhetoric that, in the political sphere, makes light of death, war and torture. If they manage that, they might really be "thought leaders".
Unspeak is a must read for anyone in the PR business or anyone considering the profession. For most information, see http://unspeak.net .
Gee -- I was under the impression that "global warming" was changed to "climate change" by agenda-driven environmentalists who needed a term that was "more inclusive" to data that didn't fit their mold.