Issue management demands plain English

A few weeks ago a Melbourne metropolitan newspaper thought it would be clever to poke fun at a city council for promoting ’plain English.’

The Herald Sun reported that the Monash City Council had been “ridiculed” after revealing plans to hire a communications expert to help the council explain complex zoning proposals to ratepayers in plain English.

The reporter – and the critic who claimed the council would “laughed at and sneered at by its community” – didn’t seem to understand that councils and corporations and organisations of all types regularly turn to experts to help them communicate technical or controversial matters. And they were apparently unaware of the longstanding Plain English ‘movement,’ or that many countries – including Australia – have statutory requirements mandating plain language in documents such as contracts, regulations and consumer information.

Words matter, and plain language is nowhere more important than in Issue Management. Look no further than the controversial issue of termination of pregnancy. It’s rare these days that either side of this debate refer to themselves as pro-abortion or anti-abortion. It’s nearly always pro-choice or pro-life, and for good reason.

Or think of what may be the highest profile issue on the global agenda. It was American Frank Luntz who persuaded the Bush White House to stop talking about the worrying-sounding global warming and start talking about the more neutral climate change. The new language has now been almost universally adopted by politicians, industry and activists alike.

The impact of language on issues should never be underestimated. The Singapore Government successfully introduced water recycled from sewage under the name NEWater, while those promoting the agricultural reuse of dried sewage failed to persuade the public to call it biosolid, rather than toxic sludge.  And for years the American meat industry successfully sold processed scraps as “lean, finely textured beef” until the media renamed it Pink Slime and the product was effectively doomed.

However, the industry most successfully rebranded through planned use of language is undoubtedly casinos. They hired American Frank Fahrenkopf to intensify the campaign to rename evil-sounding gambling as family-friendly gaming.  As a result countries around the world now have gaming licences, gaming tax and gaming authorities.

Many other industries burdened with high profile issues have also tried to reposition themselves through language, with varying degrees of success.  The oil industry would like us to talk about exploring for energy rather than drilling for oil; unmanned aerial vehicle makers would like us to call them remotely piloted vehicles rather than drones; the porn industry prefer to be called adult entertainment; and the alcohol people would like us to talk about spirits rather than liquor.

Least successful of all must be the coal seam gas industry, who have completely failed to persuade the world that hydraulic fracturing should be referred to as enhanced extraction rather than fracking. Indeed, the word frack is so ugly and so negative-sounding that it was used as a made-up expletive by the crew of Battleship Galactica.

In the face of such developments, it’s a sad state of affairs when Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper thinks a call for Plain English is somehow funny. As my high school English teacher Mr Scotney used to say: “Call a spade a spade, not a metallic blade wedded to ligneous rod.”

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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