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Preview: Corporate Communication - Theory to Practice

Corporate Communication - Theory to Practice



Exploring communication theory and the practice of corporate and organizational communication. An attempt to get beyond the "discursive structures" of the university and the corporation and find out what the two have to offer each other.



Updated: 2014-10-03T01:59:56.624-04:00

 



How to Do What You Love

2006-01-30T02:57:58.320-05:00

Gary Radford said he was going to be pointing the Executive Lectures students to my blog, so I thought I'd share this item, recently forwarded to me by a young colleague who, like so many of us, is still struggling with what he wants to be when he grows up.

I also recommend perusing the links under Free Books at right.



Schering-Plough Executive Lectures

2006-01-30T02:46:33.540-05:00

The first session of the 2006 Executive Lectures Series at Fairleigh Dickinson University went off beautifully on Saturday. The speakers were all members of the board of corporate advisors for the MA Program in Corporate & Organizational Communications:

* Stuart Goldstein, Managing Director of Corporate Communications, The Depository Trust and Clearing Corp.

* Justin Lash, communications consultant, Metro New York region, Towers Perrin

* Marion Pinsdorf, Vice President, Hill and Knowlton (retired)

* Pamela Golgolab, President/Owner, PNA Associates Inc., Public Relations, Corporate Communications, Marketing, Advertising, Chester, NJ

and yours truly.

About 20 MA program students and alumni participated. It was a great first session that included formal lectures on strategic corporate communications, crisis management, and ethics; lively discussion among the students and speakers; and an eye-opening role-playing exercise, moderated by Stuart, based on a real-life crisis scenario.

If things go as well as they did last year, it will only get better as the series progresses. We have a wonderful line-up of speakers this year.



Schering-Plough Executive Lectures

2005-12-30T07:31:04.026-05:00

The 2006 Schering-Plough Executive Lectures schedule is available. The series is part of the MA program in corporate & organizational communications at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Speakers will include journalists, marketing and PR executives, academics, and others. Questions about the series or the MA program can be directed to me or to Dr. Gary Radford, director of the program.



Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

2005-12-30T07:09:38.030-05:00

I just discovered that Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance can be read for free online in its unabridged form. I keep hearing that the book continues to sell millions of copies every year, but so many people I meet in my professional life have never heard of it. This can only mean the folks who most need to hear what Pirsig is saying aren't. I don't know how many of these "busy" people will have the patience for a book of this length and depth that doesn't offer a quick fix for their professional and personal problems, but I do know that they talk a lot (mostly very superficially) about quality, and Quality (yes, with a capital "Q") is what ZAMM is all about.

For those who have read it, there's also a very good, very rare interview with Pirsig on NPR's website. The interview was conducted shortly after the publishing of Lila--the sequel to ZAMM.



End-of-Year Thoughts

2005-12-29T06:45:45.886-05:00

The winding down of a year is a good time for summing up one's thoughts and impressions of the old year and aspirations for the new...I started this blog in February 2005 to "help me get my thoughts in order about this field I've devoted 20 years of my life to, as well as provide a useful forum for others who are interested in communication theory, corporate and organizational communication, journalism and media studies." I started it as I was in the homestretch of writing my thesis; beginning a new job after two years of observing the corporate world from the sidelines while completing my coursework and serving as an advisor to the MA program in corporate and organizational communications at FDU; learning a new industry (telecom) after nearly two decades in the world of financial services; and growing another year older and experiencing the joys and difficulties of being a parent of a teenager and two pre-teens (talk about "communication challenges"!)2005 has given me a lot to think about, only a small part of which has made it into this blog. Translating my academic voyage in the world of communication theory back into daily corporate practice has not always been easy. The process has generated a few answers, but it has led to better, more interesting questions, including:Is there any fundamental difference between corporate communication and human communication? Is the phrase "corporate communication" meaningful, or does it muddy the very specific, practical concepts of marketing, media relations, investor relations, government relations, etc.?Can communication ever be strategic, or are the two notions antithetical? This is a big one, as I've come to believe that "communication"--correctly understood--entails a willingness to give up some amount of control, while so much of what we call "corporate communication" typically involves "managing messages."What is the relationship between communication and ethics? Another big one. In an age of eroded authority, what is ethics, if not saying what you mean and behaving in a manner that is consistent with what you say?These and other questions won't be easily answered, which brings me back to why I started this blog. I've described this as "An attempt to get beyond the 'discursive structures' of the university and the corporation and find out what the two have to offer each other." My work with FDU has been a major support and inspiration in this effort. Interacting with graduate students who are either beginning to explore this field or who have been in it for some time and (like me) have begun looking for a deeper understanding of what they've been doing and why has been invigorating (what an awful sentence! But it's early a.m. and, in the interest of authenticity, I'll let it stand). I learned yesterday that I have been accepted into a Ph.D program at Rutgers' School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies. I'm thrilled and humbled and, quite honestly, don't have a clue how I'm going to work it in to an already full and chaotic life--but I'm going to do it. I have made similarly crazy decisions in the past, and, looking back, they have always been the most fruitful. Long ago, after finishing my undergrad work, I decided to pursue "some kind of writing career." I viewed my first corporate job as a necessary detour--"something to pay the bills." Then it was financial journalism--a place to "learn the ropes" until I could find "something real." And so forth...Well, this has been real. Instead of trekking far outside the corporate mainstream, I've taken my explorations inside the corporate structure in which the vast majority of people live and work. I've found it endlessly fascinating. I turned an "involuntary hiatus" (layoff) into an opportunity to return to school and spend two years thinking about and discussing the field in which I've become an accidental expert--and I've been able to share these thoughts and discussions with academics, professiona[...]



Quantum Mechanics & Corporate Communication (continued)

2005-12-13T07:11:26.350-05:00

As I have already written, communication is like light. I don't mean this poetically, although it is a fortunate analogy. I mean that, like light, it can validly be viewed in classical mechanical terms (information transfer from sender to receiver) or in what I'm referring to as quantum mechanical terms (distributed, imprecise, contingent upon the myriad disturbances and distortions that are inevitably involved in human communication).

Both modes of speaking about communication have their limitations.

The classical mode is best represented by the Shannon & Weaver model. It is primarily concerned with the engineering problem of accurate signal processing. It is utterly unconcerned with meaning.

I have not yet found a model that captures what I've been calling a quantum mechanical way of talking about communication (this analogy is, I'm sure, imprecise at best), but a good start is Gary Radford's book On the Philosophy of Communication. Radford provides a nice overview of how our "common sense" way of talking about communication as information transfer came about and a good argument for thinking about communication in alternative ways.

So, as long as we treat communication as information transfer and ignore meaning, we can hold the subject still and take it apart. Communication becomes sort of like the frog with all its organs pinned neatly to the dissecting table--good luck ever getting it to hop again. If all you're concerned with is--oh, I don't know--let's say conveying enemy positions to those operating the mortars, then a signal-processing model of communication is just dandy. Communication is an engineering problem.

In your personal and professional worlds, however, information transfer just isn't enough. There is no right answer to "Does this outfit make me look fat?" because the question is not really a question, even though it is constructed as such. It is an expression of anxiety by a particular person within a particular psychological or social or emotional context. The job interview question "Tell me what you think your greatest weakness is" is not concerned with what you think your greatest weakness is. It is a test of your ability to craft a plausible-sounding answer to that question (just as the SAT is not a test of the student's intelligence or mastery of a subject, but the student's facility at taking timed, multiple-choice tests).

Ignoring meaning is attractive because meaning is the messy, indeterminate part of communication. As soon as you venture off the well-worn trail of process or transmission theory, you risk becoming lost in a swamp of subjectivity. Swamps can be scary or beautiful, depending on what you bring to them, but two things are certain:
  • There is much more in a swamp than first meets the eye; and
  • If you focus only on the map of the swamp, to the exclusion of what's around you and directly under your feet, you will find yourself in trouble.



Resurrect Your Writing, Redeem Your Soul

2005-12-02T04:24:51.103-05:00

This article from Digital Web Magazine was forwarded by a colleague with whom I share long, pleasant, frustrating conversations about corporatespeak. Writing is about soul, which is why it is no coincidence that just about anyone can fill in the blank in the following phrase: "The soulless _____________".

Some choice quotes from the article:
  • "Bad writing that has been “Webified” can look great on screen and to search engines, but to human beings, it’s still just bad writing. Applying the new rules of Web writing to muddled thoughts is a bit like hiding dirty hands in clean gloves." (more later to tie this back to my Heisenberg posts);"
  • "Corporate language—the monotonous native tongue of business—is manipulative and carefully constructed around psychological insights. It takes many forms, but always defies normal understanding in order to control. Politicians, managers, and the media toss it out like a net to drag in the public like helpless fish."
  • "You know you’re on the Information Superhighway to Hell if crap like enhance, leverage, implement, context, driver, focus, core, actionable, outcome, and stakeholder crops up in your copy."
Good to see the webbies are on top of this. The war for your language and your soul is being fought at the margins of the corporate, academic, and technical worlds. Engage the enemy; reclaim your humanity (just don't get yourself fired).



FT's Lucy Kellaway on Business Jargon

2005-12-12T21:47:05.583-05:00

Nice column by Lucy Kellaway in the Nov. 28 Financial Times: "Why There Has Been an Uptick in My Tolerance of Jargon". If you follow the link above, you can read the full column, but you'll have to take a 15-day trial subscription to the paper (worth it, in my mind--I love the FT, and Lucy Kellaway is particularly a joy).

After talking briefly about why she turned down an offer to add to the already vast pile of books decrying jargon by writing another one, Lucy makes some important distinctions among three types of jargon:

"Class A jargon," she writes, "is the lethal stuff, the verbal equivalent of crack cocaine. At an analysts' meeting given by a big drinks company recently one of the directors boasted of the company's `global front-end ideation resource'.... Any business person who talks this way has lost sight of what he or she is supposed to be doing. Had I been at that meeting, I would have advised selling the shares promptly."

At the other end, Lucy recognizes "Class C jargon", which consists of "business words that have now entered the language. These are the equivalent of cannabis but even less harmful -- which is just as well, considering that the spread is unstoppable." She provides some nice examples, but I'm sure you can think of your own.

"In between the two extremes," Lucy writes, "Class B jargon covers all those clunky phrases such as "pushing the envelope" and "blue-sky thinking".

After providing several examples that she finds particularly vexing, Lucy writes, "Despite these hateful phrases, I am not proposing a pointless war on Class B jargon. In fact, I am becoming increasingly tolerant towards it."

She attributes her growing tolerance, in part, to two recent books, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S.

The first is called Ducks in a Row, an A-Z of Offlish ("written by a frightfully nice man with a Ph.D. from Oxford"), whose "priggish" tone turned her off. The second is called Green Weenies and Due Diligence("written by a scrap-car dealer whose personal motto is `mission possible'.") Among the book's 1,200 terms (that enable readers to "talk the talk" so they can "walk the walk"), Lucy notes several that, as she puts it, are "fresh enough to be funny," eg.:
  • "Chair plug" -- someone who sits in a meeting contributing nothing
  • "Inbox dread"--what you feel before turning on the computer
  • "Square headed girlfriend"-- your computer.

These are cute and probably will quickly catch on and become stale.

While I agree with Lucy that "people who are already heavy users are beyond help" and that other people's use of Class B jargon is "not the end of the world," I also have to agree with the priggish Oxford man who writes: "Offlish is highly contagious. It is vital that these people are mocked, ridiculed, and undermined in order to prevent its spread."

The trick, of course, is doing so without committing professional suicide. The "challenge" is to achieve sufficient status within your organization (and, ultimately, your industry) that imitating your use of the language becomes as important to underlings as imitating your clothing style and other superficial indicators of your success.




Less Than Words Can Say

2005-12-07T01:30:24.623-05:00

Less Than Words Can Say--the classic eloquent rant by the late "Underground Grammarian" Richard Mitchell--is available on line and for free. More than 20 years ago, I saw Mitchell lecture at St. John's College in Annapolis. The title of his lecture: "Split Infinitives, the First Step Toward Moral Decay." The title of "Less Than Words Can Say" was a compromise with his publisher...Mitchell told us he wanted to call his book "The Worm in the Brain" (the title of Chapter 1).

I won't presume to summarize. Read it!



Quantum Mechanics & Corporate Communication

2005-12-12T21:45:44.636-05:00

I may be getting at why the universe wanted me to read Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg at this particular moment and what quantum mechanics has to do with corporate communication.Within the widely but not universally accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is taken to mean that, on an elementary level, the physical universe does not exist in a deterministic form—but rather as a collection of probabilities, or potentials.Okay, let's back up a minute.Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that one cannot assign with full precision values for certain pairs of observable variables, including the position and momentum of a single particle, at the same time. You can know precisely where a particle is or how fast it's moving, but you can't know both precisely at the same time. All the weirdness of quantum mechanics--things occupying more than one location at the same time, going from point A to point B without passing through any point in between, action at a distance--is supposed to go away at the macro level of our day-to-day world.Still with me?Okay, so the other aspect of quantum mechanics that's relevant here is the fact that the very act of observation disturbs the experiment. This is not something correctible. At the level of the very small, very fast objects quantum mechanics is interested in, you cannot remove the impact of the observer. Observation affects what is being observed and thereby impedes precise measurement.Now, what does this have to do with corporate communication?This discussion has to be broken down into three parts:* Communication* Mass communication ("mass" is taken to mean "between more than two people.")* Strategic corporate communicationThe nearest communication theory has managed to come to anything resembling classical Newtonian mechanics has been Shannon & Weaver's model, which treats communication as a mechanical process of information transfer, in which--if the source and the sender and receiver and encoding and the decoding all work the way they should, and if the system is purged of "noise"--communication happens. That means, the message makes it from the source to the receiver in substantially the same form. What Shannon & Weaver had to give up in order for this model to work was any concern about "meaning". They were concerned exculsively with accurate signal processing.Shannon & Weaver understood the limitations of their model with regard to human communication. Implicit in this is the understanding that signal processing is, if I may, a Newtonian activity, a matter of classical mechanics, of pushing discrete particles of information down definable channels; while human communication is more like a quantum mechanical activity, subject to all kinds of strangeness. This is because human communication is concerned with the creation of meaning, which is not discrete. It is more "wavelike" in nature, occuring in simultaneously in many media and contexts, continually changing.Taken together, then, communication looks an awful lot like light--both particle and wave, depending on how you choose to observe, think about, and use it. Restricting yourself to the Newtonian perspective is necessary in certain contexts and when addressing certain problems. As long as you realize this, you'll be okay. The problem comes in when you try to apply classical thinking to the quantum mechanical realm. Put another way, there is nothing wrong with thinking of communication as information transfer; the problem comes in when you start to believe that communication is information transfer.Remember the words of Neils Bohr: "The opposite of a true statement is a false statement; the opposite of a profound truth often is another profound truth."More to come.[...]



"Physics & Philosophy" and Language

2005-11-26T06:23:26.716-05:00

On a recent day marked by several amazing coincidences, I stopped at Borders with the intention of "just browsing." To help keep my promise, I restricted myself to the Business Communication section, where I felt I would not be unduly tempted by such titles as "Life Is Just a Series of Presentations" or "Words that Sell." Any book in that section worth owning, I reasoned, I probably already own.

I was about to leave when something caught my eye. Between "The Essential Managing Change" and "The Essential Managing Teams", someone had jammed a copy of Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg. I tried to imagine how something like this could happen. A stocking error? Doubtful. On what basis would even the most green of new employees accidentally place this book on that shelf? A customer's change of heart? Would a book buyer who had already decided to purchase Physics and Philosophy suddenly feel moved instead to buy The Essential Managing Management (or whatever else might normally come between "Change" and "Teams")?

No, Heisenberg had been placed there for a reason. Someone or something (perhaps some great cosmic force) wanted me to find and buy this book in spite of my resolution. When the universe conspires in this way, how can you say no?

I've been reading it for a week now, trying to figure out what the universe wants to tell me through this book. I don't yet have the answer, but I believe it has something to do with the fact that much of this book about quantum mechanics and its impact on philosophy actually is about language -- specifically, the "limited range of applicability" of language before the rise of quantum mechanics to the experimental situation after quantum mechanics.

Maybe the universe is trying to get me to relax a bit -- to accept the limitations of language as a fundamental aspect of reality. If minds like Heisenberg's and Einstein's and Bohr's and Bohm's couldn't nail it down, why should I expect to be able to? Or maybe the universe is trying to impress upon me the seriousness of the endeavor, the fact that how we talk about reality actually affects the nature of the reality we perceive. The fact that pure objectivity has gone out the window does not mean we are left with a world of total subjectivity and contingency. Some forms of nonsense are still nonsense.

It is comforting to know that greater minds than mine continue to struggle with these issues. It's scary to know that those who wield real power in the world--if they think about language at all--think of it as a means to a particular end, the perpetuation of their own power. Life is a series of presentations. It's all about words that sell. Simple, right?



Cluetrain Is Back

2005-11-26T05:38:22.636-05:00

I'm happy to report that the Cluetrain Manifesto is again available on line!



Happy Thanksgiving

2005-11-26T05:26:48.776-05:00

During a Thanksgiving-morning supermarket run to pick up a handful of holiday necessities, I was engaged in a scavenger hunt for the final item on my list: apple cider. It wasn't in Produce; it wasn't among Juices or Non-Alcoholic Beverages (supermarkets in New Jersey can't sell alcoholic beverages -- so, why the superfluous category?); I even searched Dairy on the assumption that similarity in packaging might be sufficient reason for mis-characterizing the product. No go.I was perusing the Juices aisle for the second time, when a fellow customer, standing in front of a display of apple juices, sputtered in disgust. Upon noticing that he had company--and that his company had noticed his sputter--he turned to me and said, "Someone oughta tell the company." Then, jabbing his finger at a bottle of apple juice, he read from the label: "100% apple juice, with other ingredients." He looked at me, eyes wide with desire for shared understanding and contempt, and explained, "If there are other ingredients, then it's less than 100% apple juice!"I nodded sympathetically and commented on the fact that this brand (begins with "M", ends with "TTS") had a strong reputation for wholesomeness, a sharp edge of irony forced into my voice. Truth is, I've become so used to this sort of abuse I've learned to conserve my outrage.My poor compatriot shook his head (I could tell he had already had a rough morning before being smacked upside the head by this example of half-truth in advertising)."I just wanna get some apple juice for my little girl," he said forlornly.I decided against asking him if he'd seen any apple cider during his supermarket travels. He'd been through enough. I settled for, "Good luck." As he trudged toward the end of the aisle (gripping one of the offending bottles), I stopped to read the label he had pointed to. The exact wording was "100% APPLE JUICE from concentrate with additional ingredient". Easy enough to unpack and justify. First, they put in the "100% APPLE JUICE from concentrate." Then, they added the "additional ingredient." Any judge in the world would've laughed my friend out of court.Of course, my friend (a blue-collar fellow, I inferred from his clothing and speech, although I stood beside him in my leather jacket, beat-up jeans, Pay-Less sneakers, and sweatshirt stained with coffee from the QuikChek cup I clutched in my left hand--from what bottomless pool of hypocrisy do we draw our inferences about others?), was right. The word choice, the type face, the syntax were all carefully chosen to confound and insult the consumer's intelligence. The label might as well have read "Caveat Emptor, you schmuck!"Instead of my banal observation about the reputation of this apple juice brand, I should have quoted Tom Stoppard, as follows:"Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos."I could have. I know the speech by heart. If I'd plagiarized Stoppard, without fear of appearing a hyperliterate snob, perhaps my acquaintance might have walked away a little taller, unshaven chin held high, instead of dragging his butt toward Hot and Cold Cereals (why not, simply, Cereals?) with a dejected air. Maybe...I'm thankful for this fellow whose name I'll never know. He's one of a significant minority who still care about being misled, even when not actually lied to, of having his intelligence insulted by claptrap.I'm thankful that Stop & Shop's express lane bears a sign that says "12 Items or Fewer", rather than "12 Items or Less." Is there a connection between that fact--that tiny bit of grammatical correctness--and the friendly smiles an[...]



The Cluetrain Has Left the Station

2005-11-23T11:35:13.630-05:00

I'm sorry to report that the Cluetrain Manifesto no longer appears to be online. I'm removing the link from my blog. If it becomes available again, the link will return.



Top Politically Incorrect Words for 2005

2005-11-22T22:25:06.970-05:00

This is from The Global Language Monitor :"2005 was the year we saw the Political Correctness movement become a truly global phenomenon," said Paul JJ Payack, President of The Global Language Monitor (GLM). "The list is but one more example of the insertion of politics into every facet of modern life."The year has been rife with examples that have been nominated by the GLM's Language Police, volunteer language observers from the world over.The Top Politically inCorrect Words and Phrases for 2005:1. "Misguided Criminals" for Terrorist: The BBC attempts to strip away all emotion by using what it considers neutral descriptions when describing those who carried out the bombings in the London Tubes. The rub: the professed intent of these misguided criminals was to kill, without warning, as many innocents as possible (which is the common definition for the term, terrorist).2. "Intrinsic Aptitude" (or lack thereof) was a suggestion by Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, on why women might be underrepresented in engineering and science. He was nearly fired for his speculation.3. "Thought Shower" or "Word Shower", substituting for brainstorm, so as not to offend those with brain disorders such as epilepsy.4. Scum or "la racaille" for French citizens of Moslem and North African descent inhabiting the projects ringing French cities. France's Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, used this most Politically inCorrect (and reprehensible) label to describe the young rioters (and by extension all the inhabitants of the Cites).5. "Out of the Mainstream" when used to describe the ideology of any political opponent: At one time slavery was in the mainstream, thinking the sun orbited the earth was in the mainstream, having your blood sucked out by leeches was in the mainstream. What's so great about being in the mainstream?6. "Deferred Success" as a euphemism for the word fail. The Professional Association of Teachers in the UK considered a proposal to replace any notion of failure with deferred success in order to bolster students' self-esteem.7. "Womyn" for Women to distance the word from man. This in spite of the fact that the term man in the original Indo-European is gender neutral (as have been its successors for some 5,000 years).8. C.E. for A.D.: Is the current year A.D. 2005 or 2005 C.E.? There is a movement to strip A.D. (Latin for Year of our Lord) from the year designation used in the West since the 5th century and replace it with the supposedly more neutral Common Era (though the zero reference year for the beginning of the Common Era remains the year of Christ's birth).9. "God Rest Ye Merry Persons" for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen": A Christmas, eh, Holiday, carol with 500 years of history is not enough to sway the Anglican Church at Cardiff Cathedral (Wales) from changing the original lyrics.10. Banning the word "Mate": the Department of Parliamentary Services in Canberra issued a general warning to its security staff banning the use of the word 'mate' in any dealings they might have with both members of the Parliament and the public. What next? Banning Down Under so as not to offend those living in the Up Over.Holiday Bonus: Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings for Christmas (which some U.K. schools now label Wintervale. (In the word X-Mas, the Greek letter 'Chi' represented by the Roman X actually stands for the first two letters of the name Christ.)Last year the Top Politically Incorrect words were: Los Angeles County's insistence of covering over with labels any computer networking protocols that mention master/slave jargon. Following closely were "non-same-sex marriage" for marriage, and "waitron" for waiter or waitress.[...]



Splogs

2005-11-18T20:48:25.986-05:00

I say "blogspam", Newsweek says "splogs" .

All together now: "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off!"



Failure to Communicate - NPR

2005-11-18T20:34:14.176-05:00

Wonderful spot on NPR this week: What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate.

Special thanks to WNYC Listener Services Associate Michael J. Andrews for tracking this down for me on the basis of an e-mail request in which I provided very few clues as to what I was looking for. I heard only a small bit at the end of the spot and didn't get around to sending my e-mail until the next day. If you listen to this spot, I think you'll see why I found it so engaging and right on the money.

It's tempting for those of us in the CorpCommBiz to chuckle at this and say, "How true" and move on; I hope you'll take a moment to contemplate the horror beneath the humor. Maybe a dose of George Orwell would help:

"It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. "

or, further on:

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?"



Where do we draw the line?

2005-11-08T23:01:28.390-05:00

Where do we draw the line between taking mild liberties with language and out-and-out lying? Eg., a company I once worked for "postponed" its annual conference following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (suggesting, of course, that the 2001 meeting would be rescheduled). When a former colleague (I had already moved on to new, if not greener, pastures) inquired when the event was being postponed to, she was told, "October 2002" -- the following year's regularly scheduled event. In truth, the 2001 event had been "canceled", not "postponed."

Now, this was not sloppiness. It was a deliberate misrepresentation. But no actual harm done, right?

Okay, now think of the common semantic maneuver, in which a company's offerings are said to "include" X, Y, and Z (suggesting, of course, that there are other offerings than X, Y, and Z that are being omitted simply for the sake of space or convenience), when, in fact, X, Y, and Z are all the offerings there are. You can substitute "accomplishments" or any other numerable positive item for "offerings." What matters is that "include" is being deliberately used to create a misleading effect. Any harm done there? Probably not, except for the fact that, now that everybody knows the trick, the lawyers require "including" to be superflously followed by "but not limited to".

It's "only" the language that is harmed. The words, as Tom Stoppard put it in The Real Thing, "have had their corners knocked off and are no good anymore."

Several posts ago, I blogged about the intimate connection between communication and ethics. I promised to get into the subject in more detail...a promise I have not yet kept. This is a conversation that should be started. It's a root issue.

Somewhere between suggesting and saying is an implied chasm that, I submit, is wholly imaginary. To deliberately misuse language in order to suggest something that it would be ethically wrong to actually say is unethical. The fact that no one loses a dime over a particular instance of it is irrelevant. It is the same long, slimy slide that got us to "It depends on what the meaning of the word `is' is." It's the adult equivalent of "My fingers were crossed, so it doesn't count."

Here's the pivotal question for the corporate communicator. If you accept my premise that such (mis)use of language is unethical--can you do your job ethically?



FREE BOOKS ONLINE!!

2005-11-05T10:10:08.836-05:00

No, this is not more Blogspam!

I just wanted to point out the additions to my link list at right: The entire texts of The Cluetrain Manifesto and Power & Accountability are available online for free. This is what makes the Worldwide Web great (incidentally, the Web is 15 years old this month -- it apparently was 15 years ago this month that Tim Berners-Lee published the first webpage). Happy reading, gang!



Update to Previous Post: "Euphemize"

2005-11-04T23:48:16.493-05:00

According to Dictionary.com, "euphemize" is a legitimate word, but not "euphemization" or, still worse, "re-euphemization".



Emerging "Dirty Word"; Jargon & Cliches

2005-11-04T23:12:05.770-05:00

True story: A CEO reviews a piece of writing (composed by someone else) that is being sent out over his signature. His only edit--replace the word "challenging" with "exciting". Maybe it's nothing, or maybe it is the beginning of an inflection point, the start of a euphemistic arc. What do I mean? Well, everyone knows (at least everyone who does corporatespeak for a living) that "challenging" is euphemistic code for "scary" or, at the very least, "problematic." The challenging thing about corporate euphemisms is that they have a useful life--once everyone knows what they mean they cease to be code and become synonymous with what they are intended to euphemize (Note to self: is "euphemize" a word? Look it up) "Challenging" is way overdue for re-euphemization. Will "exciting" be the new "challenging"? How long before "challenging" becomes a dirty word? How long before everyone knows what "exciting" really means...

For more on corporate dirty words, see my previous post In Defense of Some Dirty Words.

I was having an e-mail conversation today about corporate jargon, and I wrote the following, which the person I was corresponding with suggested I include in my next blog post, so here it is (somewhat edited, since much of the original would make no sense out of context):

"What’s really funny (at least to me) is that so many people seem blissfully unaware that corporate cliches are cliches at all. Don't they even listen anymore, or do they just let the noise wash over them? I recently got a genuine laugh when I used the phrase “open the kimono”—I mean a REAL laugh from more than one person! Then I was in a meeting and someone used “herding cats”—it got a similar reaction. The bar for corporate wit is that low. "

Now, I'll grant that what I do for a living may make me unusually sensitive to these distinctions. Here's the possibility that scares me...maybe the people laughing so hard at these hackneyed bits of corporatespeak really do know what they're doing. Maybe it's a kind of etiquette: "I'll laugh at yours if you laugh at mine; maybe we can convince ourselves that we're cleverly convivial."

Cliches serve a social purpose. They spare us from the burden of original thought.



Teaching

2005-10-14T06:29:20.613-04:00

Had great fun guest lecturing at FDU Wednesday night. Students were very active and engaged.

It was interesting to note what comments of mine generated flurries of note-taking--mostly those having to do with the potential of communication to have a "humanizing effect" on the corporation. Maybe it was a bit of hope and relief after watching The Corporation last week and having to write about it for this week's class. Gary Radford's Intro to Corporate Communications gives students a lot more to chew on and wrestle with than the version of the class I took as an MA student. Gary's critical, scholarly perspective, combined with the presentations of guest lecturers with many years working in the corporate trenches, creates much greater potential for thought-provoking discussion than the more "trade school-ish" approach pursued in similar programs elsewhere. There's a really nice balance of theory and practical insight. That the students respond to this was clear in the range of questions I received--from the eminently practical "will an MA increase my earning potential?" ("Probably not, but it could well be the factor that differentiates you from an otherwise equally qualified candidate") to questions about ethical dilemmas and why, after 20+ years in the business, I felt impelled to return to the classroom. Even among the students who didn't participate much, you could see the lights were on.



CHECK OUT MY BLOG SPAM!!

2005-10-11T06:32:25.766-04:00

I've begun receiving "comments" on my posts from "anonymous"--the latest attempting to generate interest in a psychic website. I guess it was inevitable. I'm not exactly disturbed by this...more curious and faintly amused...do any of these parasites actually wind up selling anything this way?



Follow-up to Friday's Post -- BBC, Bush, God & Iraq

2005-10-12T06:26:25.306-04:00

In response to his complaint to the BBC, re: its misleading press release ("God Told Me to Invade Iraq, Bush Tells Palestinian Ministers"), Steve Lubetkin received the following:"Dear Mr LubetkinThank you for your e-mail regarding a BBC Press release which was promoting a major three-part series on BBC TWO entitled 'Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs'.I appreciate that you feel the paragraph which says "President George W Bush told Palestinian ministers that God had told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq" is misleading as when you read further you learn that the source for this revelation is a Palestinian leader and not the White House, I also understand that you feel Mr Bush's political and religious beliefs have no place in a BBC news release.Please be assured that the Press Release was in no way meant to be misleading however your comments will be carefully registered on a daily log, which is made available to our programme makers and senior management.Feedback of this nature helps us when making decisions about future BBC programmes and services and your comment will play a part in this process.Thank you for taking the time to contact us with your views.RegardsJonathan DunlopBBC Information"Okay, let's start at the top:"I appreciate that you feel the paragraph which says `President George W Bush told Palestinian ministers that God had told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq' is misleading as when you read further you learn that the source for this revelation is a Palestinian leader and not the White House..."I'm glad Mr. Dunlop "appreciates" Steve's feelings--but he completely (and I can't help thinking deliberately) misses the point. Mr. Dunlop suggests that Steve is objecting to a paragraph that appears misleading until you read on. In other words, it's lack of effort on the part of the reader that makes the paragraph appear misleading.Excuse me, Mr. BBC--we're talking about the headline and lead paragraph! As a representative of a reputable news organization, you certainly should know that the head and lead often are the only parts of a news story that get read. Yes, I know it's NOT a news story but a press release...and that distinction might hold water coming from some tech company hawking its latest cyber-widget (actually, it wouldn't, but I'll allow it for the sake of argument)...but the BBC is not selling widgets. Your press releases should -- and may be presumed to -- adhere to the same standards as your news copy. If you're selling news, it should be able to stand as news without being made misleading.Let's move on..."I also understand that you feel Mr Bush's political and religious beliefs have no place in a BBC news release."Back to "understanding" Steve's "feelings", as if they--and not the BBC's shoddy PR practices--were the issue...Here's what Steve said (bolding is mine):"The BBC's reputation for journalistic integrity is severely damaged by this kind of hyperbole, and it could have been avoided if the press release writer had simply added the phrase, 'according to a Palestinian leader who claimed to have heard the statements.' The way it's written makes it look like the Beeb interviewed George Bush and he said these things to a BBC news team. It's misleading, and whatever you think of Mr. Bush's politics or religious beliefs, it has no place in a BBC news release."It may take a bit of attention to keep track of the referent, but the "it" Steve refers to as having no place in a BBC [...]



If You Want Media to "Get it Right", Don't Mislead

2005-10-10T07:00:54.440-04:00

So often, I've heard executives complain about how "the media just can't get it right"--meaning, the story that appeared in the press didn't match the spin in the company's press release.

The following (thanks to Lubetkin's Other Blog for pointing it out) is a particularly egregious example of why journalists (good ones, anyway) exercise a healthy disregard for what appears in press releases:

God told me to invade Iraq, Bush tells Palestinian ministers

Since Steve Lubetkin brought it to my attention, I'll let him spell it out for you:

"The lead of the breathless press release states that 'President George W. Bush told Palestinian ministers that God had told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq - and create a Palestinian State, a new BBC series reveals. ' Wow, I knew GWB was religious, but I didn't know he was messianic in that way!

But wait, this is pure hype and editorializing by the BBC.When you read further, however, you learn that the source for this amazing revelation is actually one of the Palestinian leaders engaging in some tasty hearsay. This didn't come from the White House.

The BBC's reputation for journalistic integrity is severely damaged by this kind of hyperbole, and it could have been avoided if the press release writer had simply added the phrase, 'according to a Palestinian leader who claimed to have heard the statements.' The way it's written makes it look like the Beeb interviewed George Bush and he said these things to a BBC news team. It's misleading, and whatever you think of Mr. Bush's politics or religious beliefs, it has no place in a BBC news release. "

Is such hyperbole effective? The BBC story certainly did get press. Here are two examples, one from CNN and one from Xinhuanet.

But as Steve correctly points out, BBC doesn't gain any points for credibility--at least not among credible news outlets.