There is no doubting the importance of language in managing a high profile issue. Look no further than the current same-sex marriage postal ballot in Australia.
Same-sex marriage? Gay marriage? Marriage Equality? They might all be referencing the same idea, but the choice of language is helping define the battle-lines of the opposing advocates. Indeed the question of what to call this proposal is so contentious that the national broadcaster took the extraordinary step of directing its reporters and announcers what expression to use.
In a memo to staff, ABC news editorial policy manager Mark Maley warned them to be impartial in their coverage of the debate. “The preferred terminology,” he said, “is same-sex marriage, rather than marriage equality or gay marriage.”
While such a formal intervention might be unusual, the impact of labels in issue management is well understood. At the same time as the national poll on changing the Marriage Act is asking every registered voter to express an opinion, politicians in Victoria are debating legislation to allow legalised euthanasia, or assisted suicide. However that’s not the language which is being used. It’s called the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, because advocates of the legislation know politicians and the general public are much more likely to approve of “assisted dying” than a brutal term like euthanasia.
Using selective language to re-frame controversial issues is a proven effective communication strategy. Consider the highly contentious issue of termination of pregnancy. It’s rare these days that either side refer to themselves as pro-abortion or anti-abortion. It’s nearly always pro-choice or pro-life, and for good reason.
Then consider the question of people who arrive by boat without proper paperwork. Are they “genuine refugees” or “economic refugees,” or illegal immigrants, or queue-jumpers, or asylum-seekers, or boat-people or – in the bureaucratic language of the Australian government – undocumented maritime arrivals. Here again, naming the issue clearly defines the narrative.
Addressing another major challenge for today’s society, it was pollster Frank Luntz who persuaded the Bush White House to stop talking about alarming-sounding global warming and to start talking about the more neutral idea of climate change. The result of his advice is that the new language has now been almost universally accepted by politicians, industry and activists alike.
Different industries have tried to emulate this achievement, with varying degrees of success. For example, the oil industry would like us to talk about exploring for energy rather than drilling for oil, and the porn industry would prefer to be called adult entertainment. And proponents of controversial projects would much prefer their new facility was called a secure landfill rather than a toxic waste dump, or a thermal oxidation unit and not a high temperature incinerator.
But responsible issue managers need to remember that this should not be about euphemisms or spin. The question is far more fundamental. As Professor Margaret Somerville of the University of Notre Dame Australia has cautioned: “We know that our choice of words affects our emotional responses and intuitions, including moral intuitions, all of which are important in deciding about ethics and values.”
Important words those – Ethics and Values.