Adam Patterson | August 09th, 2013

These are challenging times, and challenging times inevitably present problems that occasionally morph into full-blown failures and crises.

And when these calamities arrive is just when our vocabulary seems to fail us … if we’re inclined to speak about them at all. No surprise then that an entire lexicon has sprung up to help couch unpleasant developments (or indeed, a lack of any developments at all) in the most soothing possible terms. This language inevitably favors the general, the obscure, and the neutral over the specific and/or “telling it like it is.” There are times, of course, when a situation is too unpalatable to address directly and delicate wording is required. However, for many organisations this type of lingo has become a default reflex, infiltrating everyday communication and the way they present not only their disappointments, but also their achievements.

Arguably the worst repeat offender — ‘issue.’

As in She left the company after facing training-related issues or We’ve pledged to investors to address issues in our supply chain. What’s really meant here, of course, is ‘problems’ or ‘faults,’ but somehow issues more sits soothingly on-the-fence, and is less inclined to holler ‘catastrophe.’ The ‘issue’ with ‘issue,’ however is that it’s not interchangeable with problem or challenge — in fact it can have little to do with either. An issue is, fundamentally, a topic, and may not be negative at all – significant political change in the Middle East and the greening of industry are major contemporary issues, for example. As issues are typically complex and difficult to address, using this word can make you sound a lot farther from finding a solution to a difficulty than is actually the case. The constant pop-psychology use of the term (as in ‘he’s a nice guy but he has some issues’) means it’s also commonly (if incorrectly) associated with hushed tones, raised eyebrows and personality disorders — hardly the kind of impression most people want to present.

And what do organisations do when they confront an issue, that is, problem? Some attack it with more jargon of course. We may be told they plan to ‘escalate’ the matter (what’s wrong with saying you plan to put your most talented or experienced people on it?) ‘deploy solutions’ (a catch-all that could mean doing everything, or nothing) or ‘move forward’ (When, and toward what? And what other direction would you be moving in, exactly?).

While indirect language may sound soothing, it also tends to leave a lot to the imagination — and inevitably, if you leave members of your audience a lot of room for interpretation when discussing a thorny matter, whatever they dream up is likely to be a lot worse than the real state of affairs. The best approach to crisis communications is much like the best approach to a crisis — tackling it unflinchingly, and with plenty of (linguistic) vigor.

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