Issues Management: Choose Your Words Carefully

Words have power

When you are faced with the need to manage an issue on behalf of your organization, choose your words carefully. This may sound like I’m telling you to be careful not to use certain words that may offend, which is partially true, but if this is all you take away, you’re setting yourself up for defeat. Or more to the point, you’re handing victory to your critics and attackers.

The fact is, your critics want you to be so worried about saying anything, you’ll err on the side of silence. That leaves the ‘battlefield’ to them. They get to decide what words you’re allowed to use, what those words mean, and who you are offending by speaking or not even speaking at all. In other words, they get to define victory for them and defeat for you simply by taking control over the words.

The Weaponization of ‘Misinformation’

If you need current-day example, the most obvious one right now is “misinformation.” If I get to decide what’s misinformation and what’s not, that means I get to decide what’s truth and what’s a lie. I get to decide who deserves to be believed and who can be smeared as a liar. If I can declare anything you say as misinformation, then I win and you lose, regardless of whether you’re telling the truth or not.

Of course, there are many other words, most of them packed full of emotion, that are used to paint an opponent into a corner in an issues management situation.

That’s why it’s important for your organization to grab hold of the best words for you, and the words you anticipate that your critics may use against you.

If you anticipate they’ll accuse you of misinformation or disinformation, you may need to consider going on the offensive and accusing them of misinformation preemptively where it may apply. You need to be the one who defines the terms that will define public discourse. To do that, you be the first to claim the right words.

The Origins of One Term

Another word that is ready-made for issues management is the word, “denier.” It’s usually used as a hyphenated suffix to whatever smear your attacker wants to plant on you, such as “climate change-denier.”

The reason this word is packed with emotion is because it is rooted in something very real and very emotional. After World War II there were Germans and others around the world who had the audacity to disbelieve that the Holocaust had occurred. This in spite of vast amounts of evidence of the atrocities. These people were dubbed, “Holocaust-deniers,” and as you would expect it brought with it multiple layers of emotion and shame for those affected.

How could someone deny the Holocaust happened? Are they for real, or are they being dishonest? Worse, are they trying to cover this thing up? Are they evil, these deniers?

These were the sometimes said and unsaid questions that accompanied the use of such a term. Simply by calling someone a Holocaust-denier placed them in a position of having to defend themselves.

As far as I can tell, for the longest time people were mostly careful as to who they might describe as a Holocaust-denier over the years, and such a term – “-denier” – was reserved mainly for just that usage.

The New ‘Deniers’

A few years ago, however, environmental activists started to use the term “climate change-denier” to paint their targets. This was an intentional co-opting or appropriation of the emotion-packed “Holocaust-denier” term. It was designed to put climate change on the same level of severity as the Holocaust, and to frame anyone who would deny man-made climate change in the same way as a Holocaust-denier.

Now, we have a near epidemic of “-deniers.” You can be called an “vaccine-denier,” a “Covid-denier,” a “human rights-denier.” Name it. Though, the more often this term gets co-opted the more it dilutes itself, and the less powerful it becomes.

Still, under the right circumstances a critic can use this term and other similar terms to effectively marginalize you.

Big is Bad

Other loaded terms we see these days are, “big tech,” “big tobacco,” “big pharma.”  Anything big is usually bad.

The point is, if you want to be associated with the right words, find out what they are and take hold of them. Become associated with helping small business, the family and other good concepts. Associate your organization with “working families,” “entrepreneurs,” “small business,” freedom, independence, a better environment, a more prosperous economy and values.

One way I’d handle this is to start with research, qualitative and quantitative. Don’t guess.

What words mean something emotionally to you? I’d love to hear. Just let me know.

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