Don’t Surrender in the Battle of Word Choice

It’s one of the most effective and common ways activists win public debates these days. They change the language. Whatever words or terms you are using today, they will change the words tomorrow and the words you say today, will not only be obsolete, but they will likely be deemed to be offensive. That means when you are quoted from anything you’ve said historically, you are not only wrong (according to their fluid standards), but you will likely be framed as morally and ethically bad, or at least uncaring.

How does this work?

I’ll use an issue close to home to illustrate my point. I recently engaged in a very respectful and productive dialogue with a fellow public relations colleague on the issue of how to communicate policies around service dogs in the workplace.

The colleague was advised or read something that informed her to avoid any mention of “disabled” or “disability” in conjunction with another employee’s requirement for a service dog. She seemed to feel that such a mention would create a stigma around the employee.

But the fact is, the employee’s requirement for a service dog fell under the accommodations framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, for all intents and purposes, the primary reason for the service dog and the associated accommodations completely centered on the workplace policy on disabilities.

As far as I know, there is not organized movement to avoid use of words like “disability,” “disabled,” or “disabilities.” So, when we work to avoid using them for fear we could offend or stigmatize a disabled person, we are doing exactly the opposite of our intentions. We are assigning a stigma to the “D” words. For that reason alone, if there was a movement to assign negativity to these words, I’d object.

Once you change the descriptive language in this case you are stigmatizing the employee. And then you are creating a new problem with the language. What words are we now to use? And how long will they last before someone decides they, too, are stigmatized?

There are many other situations where the language becomes a moving target. From other diversity and inclusion contexts to social contexts.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between the natural evolution of language which tends to happen gradually over time, and an overnight redefinition of common words by a small group of activists or activist organizations.

What should you do?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s time to stop. Stop engaging on the activists’ intentional or unintentional terms where they assign victimhood to those who can help them advance their agendas.

The primary reason activists change the meanings of words or symbols is to create disorder and chaos, not clarity. Once they create more confusing terminology, and that terminology is commonly accepted, it becomes more difficult for you to make your own case or to effectively counter their case, simply because you’ve embraced the confusion.

Don’t adopt the latest language that comes at you. Don’t accept the premise that the words are wrong or bad or inaccurate or whatever.

If your organization is faced with addressing a complex issue, and your critics are changing the language to suit their arguments, all the more reason not to adopt their language. If you do, you are accepting their premise, surrendering any intellectual and possibly ethical merits of your own case, and fighting a losing battle on their turf. You can’t win.

The strategy of changing the language – and it is a strategy – is designed to ambush you, so the moment you start to engage on their terms, you’ve already lost.

Instead, communicate as clearly and candidly as possible. Be honest. Use the words that apply. Use precise words, even if your critics and opponents are trying to give new meaning to those words. If need be, explain the true meaning behind your word choice and why your opponents have it all wrong.

∼ ∼ ∼

Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

Posted in Content Development & Writing, Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations, Workplace Communications and tagged , , , .