April is all about words here at PR Knowledge Hub, with a series of sessions throughout the month looking at all aspects of storytelling, writing and language. The quote in the headline comes from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and allows them to play with language and meaning. It’s a heartbreaking romp through the twists and turns of linguistic complexity and one that, if you work with words, you should follow at least once in your life.
Language - the words we choose - help us to make sense of the world around us and, as practitioners, we need to learn to make wise choices when it comes to the words we put to work on behalf of our organisations. Language evolves constantly and the structures that support it - the rules of grammar - shift and bend to accommodate the weight and rate of change.
Words have power. They can wound deeply, be a healing balm, energise the inert or deliver despair - yet often we cast them thoughtlessly into the day, oblivious to the consequences of misuse. In these difficult days, when emotions run high and outrage can be triggered by an errant emoji, all practitioners should make some time to think about the words they choose and how best to use them to build and sustain relationships with their stakeholders and communities.
If you can’t find time to join the sessions, find an hour in your day to consider the way your organisation uses language. Is the tone right - does it need to change? Do you know who you are writing for? Speaking to? Or are you stringing words together to please the boss rather than communicate with others? Check your readability scores and audit your communication channels - are the right words in play or should there be different words at work?
As your stakeholder or a member of your communities I need to understand who you are, what you do and why we need to connect and if you don’t find the right words - I’ve got nothing to go on. If you are interested in joining the sessions you can book with the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.
Truth be told, I've found it increasingly hard to write these last few months, in part due to the harsh, divisive and vitriolic language being used by some afforded the title of 'leader' by their country, their workplace or organisation. It has broken my heart to hear the way my fellow humans have been referred to by those who should be actively seeking to help them in their vulnerability and distress.
Kindness, empathy, understanding, generosity - all of these have been invisible or in short supply, particularly when describing and addressing people faced with the most dreadful situations. People just like me and you, forced to walk never ending roads to a hostile nowhere, as their country's circumstance - be it war, famine, fear or environment - sends them on an often fruitless search for refuge and safety.
The USA isn't alone in its 'Trumpeter-in-Tweet' - there are other autocrats, despots and dictators out there - but in observing the downward trend of 'leadership tone' across many media channels, the USA's current head of state has most visibly replaced discourse with dictat in the channels he favours. It would be a relief if we could account for the twitter rants as simple buffoonery (almost a recognised trait for some ministers and presidents across the world). Tragically though, the choice of language, the adjectives and epithets used to describe the unfortunate, the displaced, the hungry and the homeless are chosen quite deliberately. Dehumanising others through language is a political ploy used through the ages. In recent weeks references to people as 'animals' and 'vermin' have evoked the ghosts of Hitler, Lenin and other shadowy dealers in genocide. Their use of language to divide, demonise and dehumanise people led to the deaths of millions. The deliberate and calculated choice of words was to achieve very specific political ends.
In listening to the warped, bullying rhetoric of Trump in the USA, Salvini in Italy and Orban in Hungary - particularly as he insists on 'European cultural purity' - or the reported profanity laden responses from UK minister Boris Johnson in recent weeks makes me fearful as to the 'next steps' these people might take. Where language leads, actions follow - and as we have seen from the caging of children, the expulsion of innocents and the fear-mongering of foreign ministers, those actions are generally inhumane.
So in not writing, I've spent many hours thinking what can I do about this. I deal with language every day - recommending words that work to build relationships, build bridges, break barriers. Yet increasingly the 'shout and scare' model of leadership language is raised by some as a working strategy - to which I can only reply that true leadership lies in language expressing empathy, logic and reason, not the bullying, malicious harping we have had to endure.
Perhaps all I can do - as can you - is to speak out against such language. Do not remain silent. Change the tone. Don't accept this use of language as normal human behaviour. Call it out for what it is.
The living tentacles of language easily work their way into hearts and minds, triggering cruelty as speedily as love. Those who harness and drive language towards hate and division for their own political ends and personal gain need to meet a wall of words from the rest of us - words of worth, of humanity. Words for good.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.