Person Marking Error on a piece of text with a red marker.

Every Word Matters, All The Time

Every public comment from an organisation can have an impact on reputation – positive or negative. That means being careful about every single word, all the time. If not, you are playing with your reputation.

Statements and comments are issued all the time.  Official comments are often pored over carefully by communications teams. On other occasions, the level of oversight or control can vary. There is always a need to have a level of authenticity on any communication. It is otherwise simply bland commercial speak and, as a result, no-one will listen. Unfortunately, that balance can sometimes be lost.

Some organisations, but more often their leaders, say outrageous things. That could be a result of a lack of advice, advice being ignored or maybe the person feeling that they know what to say and not taking the advice. Sometimes not enough attention is paid to how an audience will react.

Just take some recent examples which show that even those who usually have a steady hand can make huge, reputationally costly, mistakes even when the initial comment is quickly followed by a desperate attempt to explain what the person really meant.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, musical impresario – was booed by the audience when announcing that production of Cinderella was a ‘costly mistake’. He later issued a statement, and one from his production company, stating that he was referring to the costs incurred because of Covid etc. He was not speaking about the production itself.

James Patterson, bestselling author – in an interview he claimed that white male authors faced ‘racism’. He then issued an apology on social media following a backlash.

Lizzo, 3x Grammy award-winning superstar – used a derogatory term in the lyrics of a new song. She swiftly issued a personal statement and changed the lyric.

Heather Wheeler, Government Minister – suggested that Birmingham and Blackpool were ‘godawful’. Her apology for the offence caused, not the comment itself, was, she said, not reflective of her actual view. Although it is not clear what her actual view is of Birmingham or Blackpool.

These examples all show what can happen and how a hostile momentum can build. In all these cases you can see there was an attempt at a U-turn, but some were more successful than others. The only one to emerge from their trouble with any degree of credibility was Lizzo. Why? In main part because she was able to genuinely point to championing causes, so this problem was out of character for her. But her apology was swift and accompanied by action.

In the other cases, Lloyd Webber has made forceful comments before, Patterson took two days to apologise and mentioned his support for a diversity of voices which some responded to by asking for evidence. Wheeler tapped into distrust of government ministers and a feeling that levelling up is nothing more than a political slogan.

So, what does this tell us about making public comments?

  • Think about how your audience sees the comment, not how you interpret it. Challenge yourselves first.
  • Being genuine and authentic is not the same as causing outcry.
  • You are always on duty. ‘Danger’ lurks in every public utterance.
  • Build your reputation in advance of problems, it will help if things do go wrong.
  • Any apology will be critiqued. If you want to be genuine and authentic then the apology is the place where that should always happen.

 Image by AndreyPopov on iStock

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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