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A Slip of the Tongue Shows the Power of Words


By Ruth Kieran, Lexis Deputy Managing Director

I recently attended an industry event where a CEO described plans for his agency’s growth and the need to find a successor. He talked in some detail about what the focus would be for this hypothetical individual.

“When he joins the company,” he said.

While you may not have immediately noticed the issue, the few women who were in the room at the time certainly did. This “slip of the tongue” – as the CEO later described it when challenged – made me think about the damage a careless word can do, as well as the dangerous assumptions that we can all make about audiences.

As professional communicators, we all know that while the right language can be incredibly powerful, a thoughtless remark can not only lose you the goodwill of an audience in an instant, but deliver you a lifetime of corporate problems.

That’s why the UK communications industry still thrives and why many of our clients rely on us not only to hone their corporate messaging for proactive corporate positioning, but also for crisis and issues management too.

A poorly handled response that underestimates or misunderstands a multitude of audiences can see an issue turn into a corporate headache, or full blown crisis. While an organisation may be behaving well, if it doesn’t skilfully communicate these actions to its audience, they simply won’t be louder than words.

What you say, and how you say it, during and after a crisis cannot be underestimated. For example, we recently supported a client whose premises were the scene of a tragic accident. The delicate handling of this event, both from an operational point of view as well as a communications perspective, was critical in order to ensure that the brand was able to tread a fine line in its communication between moral and legal requirements – and the emotional needs of those involved.

The challenge of this kind of communication is to ensure that we distil our clients’ actions into words that not only show real understanding of the audience, but also – importantly – ensure that these will not appear hollow once the immediate issue has been addressed. If handled correctly, those words offer a chance to repair and ultimately build further trust and dialogue.