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Working in a particular industry, you get so used to speaking in that business’s language that you don’t think much about it (similarly, half the battle in covering a new industry as a business journalist is learning the lingo). But when it comes to communicating with outsiders, it’s usually best to jettison the jargon. That’s especially so in a crisis, when people are desperate to understand what’s happening.
The key to understanding what jargon or buzzwords you can use is the same as the key to good writing: know your audience. In a crisis, your target is (usually) a general audience that won’t be familiar with your industry’s insider language. Worse, some people think invoking jargon impresses people. It doesn’t. Even if your audience isn’t directly affected by the crisis, why alienate the public with arcane language?
We recently had a perfect example of this: United Airlines’ response to the now-notorious dragging of Dr. David Dao from one of its flights. In its second attempt at commenting on the situation, United apologized “for having to re-accommodate” Dao and three other customers. The public howled at re-accommodate. It’s astonishing that the word got through any sort of vetting process.
Often we fall back on jargon because we don’t fully understand a situation. CrisisResponsePro founder James F. Haggerty once had a colleague explain a new assignment like this: “The sense I get is that we need to do an environmental scan, then blue-sky some recommendations on D.C.-functionality.” The colleague finally admitted he didn’t understand the assignment.
The first step in avoiding jargon is to think through which words and phrases will be alien to your listeners or readers. It’s a good idea to include in your crisis communications plan a list of these words and their simpler alternatives. This list should be consulted when drafting your statements in response to the crisis.
For example, instead of negative economic growth, use recession. Instead of URL, use web address. Instead of putative class action, use potential class action. Can you replace off-label use with use outside of FDA approvals? Debenture with certificate of indebtedness?
This goes for acronyms, too. Reading an alphabet soup of abbreviations for organizations (CFTC, CFBP) is headache inducing for the reader. This is especially so with unfamiliar acronyms, and a particular problem in Washington, D.C.-based matters, where agency and procedural acronyms abound.
In his preface to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook (1998) on writing clear financial-disclosure documents, master investor Warren Buffett writes that when a writer fails to get his or her message across “stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.”
The SEC itself advises in that document: “Ruthlessly eliminate jargon and legalese. Instead, use short, common words to get your points across. In those instances where there is no plain English alternative, explain what the term means when you first use it.”
The agency adds: “If you have been in the financial or legal industry for awhile, it may be hard to spot jargon and legalese in your writing. Consider asking someone outside the industry to check your work for incomprehensible words.”
It’s essential for the crisis communications team to probe its statements for such industry-insider language. Yes, it’s extra work — but no one said crisis communications is easy.
— Thom Weidlich
Image Credit: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock
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