Communications 'Professionals' a Disgrace to Our Language

Drop the Thesaurus and Nobody Gets Hurt

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
There's a website I visit on occasion called It's a collection of photos of signs, packaging, t-shirts and other things that all have in common the mangling of the English language. Most of the examples come from Asia (hence the less-than-politically correct domain name) -- like a send-off letter from a hotel, wishing the guest "A bong voyage" or a welcome sign outside a public garden that says "Trees and flowers await your love."

These aren't intentional misuses of the language; they're just peculiar translations (at least I think those two examples were mistranslated) that I usually find funny.

It turns out that I no longer have to go offshore to satisfy this particular jones. I can get as much mangled English as I can stomach from purely domestic sources. The sad irony is that the best sources are communications professionals.

Come again?
Here's what got me riled up on this subject. I was reading a story about a telecom company that has recently merged with a competitor. Keep in mind, these are two telecommunications companies. And they are represented by the world's largest PR firm, from whence came this explanation of one of the benefits of the merger: "AT&T expects to realize related synergies with an estimated net present value of approximately $2.8 billion."

Come again? Are you saying that the merger is going to save you a lot of money? Well then why don't you just say that?

How about this one. Hastings, a company that sells books, music and movies has said that its goal is to "satisfy our customers' desires for personal entertainment and information through total customer satisfaction." Uh, yeah. They want to satisfy customers through customer satisfaction. Did I get that right?

And another, again from a communications company: "We are developing sustainable communications programs that actually revolve around what we have learned, through systems thinking, are in the customer's best interests."

Hang on a sec, will you, while I pull some more hair out. I know what each of those words mean individually, but when put together in that particular order, I'm at a loss.

It's bad enough that examples like these are so common. What's worse, though, is that people are getting paid to write or say them. Paid a lot.

We're better than that
That's sad, because we're better than that. The PR business is filled with some of the smartest, most innovative people I know, but they're too often overshadowed by the creators of language that only serves to reinforce the negative stereotype of the PR person as nothing more than an obfuscator.

I'm not saying that the local PRSA meetings have to become some sort of Algonquin Roundtable, but I do think it's time that we as an industry start holding ourselves to higher standards. We're supposed to be in the business of taking sometimes complicated issues and putting them into language that is easy to understand.

Instead, we're just as likely to take a rather uncomplicated message and put it into language so hard to understand that it ends up meaningless. More than ever, I think there is a need for style, wit and -- most of all -- clarity.

I once worked with a woman who had a habit of using the phrase "Which is to say...." For example: "The value is immeasurable, which is to say, it's hard to measure." That's an actual quote. Call me a simpleton (go ahead, I'm used to it) but if you are clear and direct, you only have to say what you mean once to get your point across.

Doing it right
American Airlines issued a press release the other day which I really liked. American now flies from JFK non-stop to Las Vegas, and the press release said: Las Vegas is a fun place to go; lots of New Yorkers like to go to Vegas; American thinks you'll like their schedules, fares and service between the two. I paraphrased, but not much. The release said everything it needed to say in clear, simple yet still clever language, in less than a page.

Nowhere in the release did the company use a line like "we are a leading provider of unified content management solutions for the extended enterprise" -- which is how Gauss Interprise likes to describe themselves.

Every time I read one of those pompastic quotes (I combined pompous and bombastic to create a new word. Like synergy; get it?) I want to make like Peter Finch's character in the movie Network by yelling "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

But of course, I'm a PR professional, so after careful wordsmithing, what I'll actually say is "Current market conditions have created an atmosphere of extreme personal dissatisfaction, and I propose to henceforth reject the status quo and instead pursue alternative courses of action."
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