‘It’s Only Words’

July 22, 2013

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It’s a funny expression because any corporation that has been in the advent or middle of a crisis knows that choosing the right words can make all the difference between a quick recovery and a slow, arduous one.

As crises unfold, all corporations and their leaders are tested to their core. In the middle of the swirl they need to remain calm while demonstrating to constituents that the problem is being taken seriously. What you say, and when you say it is something that requires forethought and experience.

Because crises can trigger big words. It is as if comfort can be taken from superlatives, particularly in the court of public opinion. In the earliest days of a flash-bang crisis, the likes of capsized cruise ships and environmental disasters, when facts are still vague and imagery is potent, citizen journalists but equally traditional media can easily take leave from nuance.

Words are important tools, and using expressions properly and appropriately is a matter of showing due respect to real life circumstances and keeping matters in perspective and context. In financial communications, this was addressed a long time ago. A Dutch PR professional called Harry Mock discovered a relationship between profit and loss qualifications and applied percentages. His resolution was to create a fixed bandwidth (Scale of Mock), which has become a standard.

  • Marginal: 0-2%
  • Modest: 2-4%
  • Limited: 4-7%
  • Marked: 7-12%
  • Significant: 12-20%

In the context of crises, this scale does not exist. Nor is it likely there will ever be one as it is tough to tabulate human emotions. Some companies however have their own classification system to define the gravity of their problem. The simplest one has three levels: an event, an issue and a crisis and each triggers an organizational response that is appropriate to their own sense of urgency. But while that’s a sound bandwidth to use internally, what when your stakeholders put more weight on these words than you do? The CEO of BP was caught in this trap as he, while more and more facts came in, had to reword his public statements from ‘limited impact on the environment’ to ‘a complete catastrophe.’ Not a word he would want to use voluntarily, for liability sake alone, but the outside world forced him to say it.

Most corporate crises, one could argue, are like marketing—a battle of perceptions. The term was coined ages ago by famed marketer Jack Trout when he defined positioning. But that doesn’t mean a crisis is a war. It’s rather a battle of sentiments while you fix what went wrong, whether you are responsible or not. The words you choose can influence the impact on your reputation to be modest, marginal, or if you don’t pay attention: considerable. So stay sharp.