A few examples:
- Used cars have disappeared from the lexicon in the United States. Now we have “pre-owned cars” or “certified pre-owned cars.” In my world, a used car is a used car, “certified” or not.
- It’s impossible to buy a balcony ticket in a Broadway theater, not because the show has sold out, but because “balcony” is now called the upper mezzanine.
- Want to speak to your stock broker? Ask for your financial advisor.
- Political cable TV programs use the words “expert analyst” to describe pundits who give their opinions, even though their opinions are usually wrong. Don’t trust me on this? Check the opinions of so-called “expert analysts” for the years leading up to Trump’s election in 2016; Sunday morning quarterbacks who are wrong would be a more apt description.
For truly expert analysis of situations, tune in to baseball or football telecasts, (but not all) where former players really know what they’re talking about. The problem with political cable “expert analysts” is that most have never run for office, but still think they have the answers.
Especially absurd was how the pundits criticized Joe Biden for not being public enough after he announced that he was running for president, even though he has been a successful politician for decades and some of the “expert analysts” have as much active political experience as the computer I’m writing this on.
Call me a cynic, but I believe that what upset the cable people was that he didn’t make himself available for their programs, or didn’t make statements every few hours, limiting panelists’ opportunity to give him unsolicited advice or criticize him. Note to pundits: Biden still leads in Democratic presidential polls despite ignoring your criticism.
The PR Dictionary of Disingenuous Words
Public relations professionals try to convince clients that they’re at the cutting edge. But often their claims are similar to the highly exaggerated “new and improved” advertising claims. The PR business deserves a dictionary of its own. Thus, my “PR Dictionary of Disingenuous Words that ensures your PR responses will not be believed.
Some words used in our business, although harmless, can mislead people outside of our business.
Titles like “partners” or “associates” at agencies can mean that an employee is part owner of an agency, or a low-level account executive or a higher-level account supervisor. If clients are naive enough to believe that titles at an agency equates to PR expertise shame on them.
What is truly duplicitous is the language PR people use to represent clients in trouble. Here they are in no specific order:
PR Speak – Used by practitioners in many circumstances: Such as:
- trying to make a bad client situation look better than it really is,
- during the introduction of a new product that in reality is only a minor improvement or has different packaging,
- blaming a reporter who has quoted a client correctly after the client had second thoughts about what was quoted. “Misquoted” or “misunderstood” or “took it out of context” are the usual excuses.
While Edward Bernays is considered the father of public relations, the vaudeville comedian Al Kelly might be the father of PR Talk. Check out his act and you’ll see the nexus.
Corporate Talk – Used by company executives who try to convince the media that a PR crisis is being overblown by news coverage or that a bad earnings report is only a temporary blip.
Flimflam – A version of “double talk” used by a client or spokesperson during a PR crisis, when answering a question from a reporter that they would rather not answer.
Boiler Plate Talk – A pompous-sounding statement issued during a PR crisis that has little or nothing to do with a reporter’s question.
Coach Speak – Statements made that have nothing to do with the reality of a situation. They’re most often used when a spokesperson tries to convince reporters that blaming high-level corporate executives for mismanaging a situation is unwarranted.
Examples of PR Talk and Preferred Alternatives
Here are a few examples of PR Talk from communicators in various fields:
- Politics – People in positions of authority, like members of government bodies, often try to dodge a reporter’s question by saying, “We’ll take what you say on advisement and look into the situation, (often hoping that reply will be sufficient.) A better reply, depending on the question, would be, “I disagree with the premise of your question,” or “That’s news to me. We’ll look into it and get back to you”
- TV Business – When reporters don’t know the facts of the story they’re covering, they resort to weasel words, like “bad optics,” “playing to his base,” or “wave election.” These phrases indicate that the reporters don’t have specific facts to back up their assertions. A better approach would be for the reporter to just report on a situation and limit the report to known facts.
Which bring us to our PR business.
- Our Business: Weasel words are ubiquitous when writing press releases or answering reporter’s questions. They are used as modifiers when the PR person is not certain of the facts. Words and phrases like, ‘’”perhaps,” “believed to be,” “possibly,” and “our research shows” demonstrate a lack of proven facts in releases and answers. The solution is to stick to the facts.
- PR Crises: PR crises are a lodestone for using weasel phrases in lieu of answering a reporter’s question. A few are, “Safety is our highest priority;” “Our employees are like part of our family;” “Our attorneys have investigated the matter and have found no problem.” All these replies are non-answers and are certain to irritate reporters. Using PR Talk answers sometime will backfire, as reporters might sense a cover-up and start digging deeper into the matter. A straight forward answer often prevents additional negative reporting.
Words to Placate PR Employees
Agency management also uses PR Talk to placate unhappy employees. These include:
Promises – Statements made by agency execs to employees solely for the benefit of the agency.
Promotion – Often a meaningless title for an employee in order to postpone a salary increase.
Team Effort – A ploy instituted by PR management to camouflage the superior work of individual account team members in an effort to keep the individuals from complaining about minimum salary increases and promotions given to colleagues with less ability.
Title Bloom – Meaningless titles given to individuals in lieu of salary increases.
PR Double Talk
The above definitions fall under the category known as “PR Talk.” Subsets of PR Talk include “double talk,” or “double speak,” which is speech that deliberately attempts to mislead or hide the truth. It’s often called “creative license.” To reporters asking questions, it means not getting a truthful answer.
When arranging client interviews or press conferences – always a danger because of the “got cha” questions – I always advise clients not to use any of the examples in my “PR Dictionary of Disingenuous Words” for several reasons.
Even though PR Talk is used almost every day, I instruct staff and clients never to use it. PR Talk will surely accomplish the following:
- Your PR responses will not be believed.
- Good relations with journalists might be damaged. Three examples: Sean Spicer had a good reputation with political reporters until he became President Trump’s press secretary. His less-than-credible answers to reporters’ questions about the president’s remarks tarnished his reputation. His successor, Sarah Huckabee Sander’s answers were hardly ever believed, leading to the cessation of the White House briefings. Because Kellyanne Conway told reporters she had “alternative facts,” some TV shows said that they would not let her appear on their programs.
Essential Lessons for PR Pros
There are important lessons for PR people:
Protecting a client by issuing PR Talk statements will not automatically assure you of job security or a promotion.
The reporter(s) whose questions you evade by using boiler plate PR Talk today might be the ones you need to contact in the future. Remember, reporters don’t need you to survive. You need them. As my science teacher used to say, “Put this in your know-it book” for the next time you’re asked to mislead a reporter.
Suggestion: For a factual video lesson on how reporters react to PR Talk answers, check out the White House press briefings conducted by Spicer and Huckabee.
Opinion: Telling an unhappy reporter that, “I’m just doing my job,” is never an acceptable answer in any negative situation.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.