Choosing the right words can shape a crisis

The Guardian is reframing climate change to refer to it as a "climate emergency". Indeed, "climate change" was first proposed as a way to make the phenomenon seem less frightening. Then there's the framing that comes from the fast food industry, or the oil industry, or abortion activists. And as Tony Jaques explains, terminology serves an important strategic role, and has a powerful effect.

Words really do matter – especially when it comes to issue and crisis management. The most recent example is a proposal to change the way we refer to climate change.

The Guardian recently updated its style guide to propose “climate emergency, climate crisis or climate breakdown” instead of “climate change”, and favours innovative “global heating” over conventional “global warming”.

Only time will tell whether it can change the language, but it does have a good example to follow. In a notorious secret memo back in 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz proposed to the George W Bush White House to promote the term climate change as being “less frightening” than global warming. That alternative language subsequently became widely accepted.

As Luntz wrote at the time: “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge” (though Luntz himself now professes to no longer be a climate sceptic).

This is, of course, the same White House which supported buying US$700bn of distressed assets from banks during the global financial crisis in 2008. They desperately insisted on referring to it as a “rescue plan” and were reportedly much irritated when the rest of the world predictably called it a much less politically-acceptable “bank bail-out”.

Strategic naming and framing of controversial issues is nothing new – think no further than the fast food industry that likes to frame obesity as a “personal responsibility issue”, or the big oil companies that want to replace “drilling for oil” with “exploring for energy”, or the activists who have successfully renamed “pro-abortion” as “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion” as “pro-life”.

Or consider the famous case of consultant Frank Fahrenkopf who was commissioned to revamp the image of the Las Vegas casino industry. He advocated replacing the word “gambling” with the more family-friendly “gaming”, which is the language now frequently reflected all around the English-speaking world.

Choice of words can also be important in the face of a crisis. Take the example of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. It was only many years later that the company finally apologised for having insisted for months on calling it “core damage” and banning its own executives from using the true description – “meltdown” – in an attempt to minimise the disaster. As TEPCO’s new president, Naomi Hirose, told a Tokyo news conference in 2016: “It is extremely regrettable. People are justified in thinking of it as a cover-up.”

However, choosing the right words isn’t necessarily a cover-up, or dishonest, or unethical. It should be simply a transparent way to position a particular issue or situation in the minds of the public to suit whoever is trying to set the language of the conversation. And, sometimes, it’s very effective.

For anyone who believes words don’t matter, just think of the ongoing and painful debate in the community about what to properly call people who arrive by sea without visas – be it refugees, or queue jumpers, or illegal migrants, or boat people, or asylum seekers. Or, as the Australian federal government would have it: undocumented maritime arrivals. Each term comes with a very deliberate strategic intention.

Whatever your view on that issue – or similar public controversies – there is no doubting the power of language to influence our opinions, and that power needs to be used with great care.

Tony Jaques is the managing director of Issue Outcomes. This piece appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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