Faaez Samadi
May 29, 2018

Meaning is optional: PR and the cheapening of words

We’ve known for a long time that talk is cheap, but in today’s maelstrom of misinformation and dishonesty, is the word at its lowest ebb? If so, what does this mean for the future of communications?

How can brands add meaning to their message when their words are being drowned out on all sides?
How can brands add meaning to their message when their words are being drowned out on all sides?

For many years now, consumers, brands, politicians, journalists – in fact just about anyone with an internet connection – has been combatting an amorphous, all-consuming Marvel comic-esque super villain that the social and digital age has brought us, which for our purposes we will term simply: The Noise.

The Noise is the collective scream of messages, ads, articles, prompts and notifications that engulf us from the moment we wake until we collapse asleep, buried under the weight of them all. The solution to cutting through all this, touted endlessly, has been to craft messaging that stands apart from The Noise, that really hits home with the person you are communicating with.

This is a sensible pursuit, for sure. But it seems standing out is increasingly coming at the expense of, say, being informative, or even truthful. In other cases, the daily morass of words spewed out into the digisphere are being used as a means to hide through empty, vague statements.

In simple (and admittedly unscientific) economic terms, the supply of words these days utterly dwarves demand. Were words to have a share price, the logical hypothesis is that their value has shrunk dramatically, cheapened by sheer volume and apparently regular misuse, which has led to disengagement and apathy.

As Emma Smith, Asia chief executive at MHP Communications, puts it: “Words have been cheapened to such an extent that we no longer believe what we hear, but we are living in an era when almost nothing can be kept secret, and when truth is being considered bland or, worst case, a luxury.”

It paints a bleak picture for the communications landscape, and experts are constantly seeking ways to address this growing issue.

From the top down

For some observers, it is too simple to say that words now have less value. The issue is more about “the proliferation of outlandish statements” in today’s communications, as Jane Morgan, managing director of Golin Hong Kong, puts it.

“Social platforms allow and even encourage quick-fire statements and opinions that often make little sense and are sometimes just plainly untrue.”

The most obvious example of this is US President Donald Trump, who uses his Twitter feed to constantly undermine others and make statements that are incendiary or even false. These include claims that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone, or that an investigation into him and his associates for multiple alleged corruption offences was a conspiracy against him. In Asia-Pacific, President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines also consistently deflects inquiries into his so-called ‘war on drugs’, which has allegedly led to the state-sanctioned killing of more than 7,000 people, repeating that they are all drug dealers or users.

Tangled in amongst this is the ‘fake news’ epidemic, an entire network of words and statements that actively deal in misinformation and divisiveness.

It’s hardly surprising that belief in words and the institutions is suffering.

“Words have been devalued, yes, simply because they aren’t as trustworthy nor as meaningful as they used to be or could be,” posits James Wright, group CEO of Red Agency APAC and CCO, Havas Group ANZ. “What you say has to matter, otherwise what’s the point? You just become a form of theatre or entertainment.”

This is a prevailing sentiment among many consumers and practitioners, but the argument is complex, even within the communications community. Just because we don’t like the outcome of something doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. The irony, says Charles Lankester, EVP of global reputation and risk management at Ruder Finn, it that it is leaders such as Trump who have actually realised the importance of words.

“They use words quite brilliantly: laser-guided and entirely locked onto their target,” he opines. “The issue here is volume. News has almost no shelf-life in 2018 given the huge amounts of data we deal with every day.”

Lee Nugent, EVP and APAC regional director at Text100, suggests that the level of distrust sown among the public is so high precisely because words retain meaning.

“You can argue that ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have accelerated the general public’s distrust in politicians, media and corporations,” he explains. “But this is just as much about the power of the words being spoken – and tweeted – as it is about the misuse or abuse, in some cases, of those words.”

What doesn’t appear up for debate is the gaping lack of trust people feel towards institutions, and a growing apathy towards many of the things they say. Yet the appetite for words of substance is still there, despite the odds. Wright said that according to research Red Agency carried out with YouGov Galaxy in Australia, 93% of respondents want high-quality informative journalism, and over a third are willing to watch advertising in return for ‘good quality news’.

Corporate speak

The Noise is just as much an issue for brands as it is any other communicators, and the picture isn’t pretty here either. Sure, as Nugent says, there “have always been shysters and spin doctors in the [PR] business”, and the ethical issues around obfuscation and corporate double-speak are the same as they were decades ago.

But in our age of never-ending information and conversation, brands appear to be getting better at hiding in plain sight amid all the words being spoken or written online; seemingly adhering to PR norms of open communication, they are actually studiously avoiding issues and misdirecting.

Take Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s eight-hour Senate hearing in the US in April, where he masterfully pivoted discussions away from several direct questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. More recently, this publication aired its frustration with the social network over an update regarding its data privacy crisis, with Facebook devoutly sticking to its false narrative that users are not its ‘product’.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is questioned on Capitol Hill

Or take US pharma start-up Theranos, which collapsed after fraud charges over its supposedly revolutionary testing technology. Talked up as the new darling of Silicon Valley, the company issued statements like the following when asked why it wasn’t using its new tech to perform most of its tests:

“Over time, we’ve been optimizing our clinical lab to bring up tests that are more commonly ordered, and in some cases move resources off the proprietary tests that are less commonly ordered to get to a point where the ordering patterns we are seeing can all be accommodated through our finger-stick technology.”

Make sense? Don’t worry, it didn’t to anybody else either. This company did eventually suffer huge consequences, but not before raising more than US$700 million on the back of such double-speak.

Closer to home, in 2017 we saw Levi’s Australia apologise on Facebook for an all-male advertising campaign that had prompted much debate. The idea was commendable, but the brand then also issued the response below to a direct follow-up question:

The question remains completely unanswered, and - the brand hopes - everybody moves on.

It’s not apparent that there are significant consequences for such opacity (Theranos aside, although the company was only brought down by dogged reporting). Sure, consumers are angry for a certain period – Facebook had US$50 billion wiped off its value – but these financial blows are almost always dips at best, with share prices and brand reputation recovering relatively quickly.

Wright states that it is only relatively few brands that communicate in a way that is “antithetical to what consumers want to hear” – but this is to the detriment of many.

“There is a huge body of research showing that people wants brands to be more meaningful, open and transparent,” he asserts. “Yet in big business with big money and big lawyers involved, this is the last thing these businesses want to do, particularly if it means admitting any fault.”

Taking action

So is there a benefit to creating meaningful words? Unsurprisingly the answer is a resounding yes, although observers are realistic about the difficulty of doing so in today’s media environment.

“Corporate speak is meaningless and ultimately counterproductive,” says Nugent. “All too often brands forget to talk to people as people. If we can remember to do this, we’ll go some way to restoring the public’s trust in corporations.”

Financial damage is only one part of the equation, says Morgan at Golin, especially with today’s empowered consumer base. “Brands can’t just say what they want, because if they don’t act, the negative social conversation won’t go away. A crisis will die down at some point of course, but what will be memorable to consumers is the correlation between comments made by a brand and actions taken.”

This is at the crux of the communications solution. The old maxim is that actions speak louder than words, but in today’s society, it is a subtler observation: that the value of words is directly linked to the action, or inaction, that proceeds them.

“Companies need to practise what they preach,” says Nugent. “That is what creates advocates. Advocates of a brand are so important in this age where consumers are bludgeoned with the same message day after day.”

Having highlighted the examples of brands doing it wrong, some businesses are trying to get it right. In the US, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologised profusely over an incident involving two black men being arrested at a store in April, but the company also shut 8,000 stores for one day to carry out diversity training. “That’s a huge revenue loss but one that spoke volumes,” says Morgan. “A significant action backing up their issues statement.”

It also seems that brevity with words can be as effective or more than lengthy explanations. Wright at Red Agency points to the brands that supported equal rights for same-sex couples in Australia last year, specifically Coca-Cola, whose iconic billboard in the Kings Cross area of Sydney became rainbow coloured with the simple message: ‘We say yes to love’.

“In recent years there has definitely been a lot more confidence in brands willing to have an opinion and stick by it,” he says. “People are far more emboldened to call bullshit now, so walking the walk is imperative to anyone wanting to be taken seriously.”

In amongst the vagaries of this undoubtedly complex issue, it’s clear these are challenging and changing times for the word. Undervalued by obfuscators, cheapened by verbosity and The Noise, threatened by the emoji, empowered by authenticity and action.

Rudyard Kipling said words are “the most powerful drug used by mankind”. We all know that drug abuse has dire consequences.

Join us at CampaignComms

Want to hear more about how PR's role is changing? This and more will be discussed at our upcoming CampaignComms (formerly PR360) event, taking place on 13 June, 2018 in Hong Kong. Registration for CampaignComms is now open.

To register for the event and be the first to receive details on the programme and speaker line up, please visit www.CampaignComms.Asia 


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