When organizations get into trouble it’s time for clear and open communication, not hiding behind silly phrases to somehow redefine the situation.
One of those foolish phrases we need to retire is “abundance of caution” which is taking root in issue and crisis management.
In the last few weeks Campbell’s Soup recalled 1,700 cans of SpaghettiOs, which had been mislabelled as Natural Chicken Broth and cited an abundance of caution. The US State Department used the same explanation to shut down over 20 diplomatic facilities across the Middle East and North Africa after intercepting what was claimed to be a serious Al Qaeda threat. And the FBI claimed it was an abundance of caution which made them test a broken package at John F. Kennedy Airport after two customs workers claimed it had made them feel sick.
What happened to simple English? When organizations are facing a crisis or a serious issue is exactly the time for accurate, unambiguous language, not meaningless corporate messaging.
This silly trend seemed to gain impetus in 2009 when White House senior counsel Greg Craig explained that, following a technical mistake, the then newly-inaugurated President Obama would retake his oath of office in an abundance of caution. Maybe it was understandable, but there was no justification just a few months later when Unilever tried to blame the same excuse for recalling potentially contaminated Slimfast product.
Since then, increasing use of the phrase has devalued it to the point of being meaningless. In its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, CNN repeatedly prefaced its reports by telling viewers it was exercising an abundance of caution. But they still they carried the false and inflammatory claim that the police were looking for a “dark skinned man.” And later carried a false report that an arrest had been made.
Returning to Campbell’s mislabelled soup, perhaps the company was encouraged by its previous use of the same strategy. In 2010 Campbell’s said it would recall nearly 15 million pounds of canned pasta and meatballs (yes, those same troublesome SpaghettiOs) because of “possible under processing” of the meat. It had been found that the cooker wasn’t heating the meat to safe temperatures. Even though the US Agriculture Department said it had not received any reports of illnesses from consumption of the products, Campbell’s announced their voluntary recall in an abundance of caution.
Instead of hiding behind this linguistic smokescreen, maybe it’s time to retire the term “abundance of caution” and focus instead on an abundance of accuracy or an abundance of quality control.