Language sensitivities: Murdoch’s mistake

Portraying different races, cultures, and disabilities using acceptable terminology in writing or in speech can often be a challenge.

You need to keep up-to-date with trends, understand political or cultural sensitivities, stay abreast of accepted styles and be aware of how the communities themselves wish to be portrayed.

Let’s take the description of ‘disabled people’ as an example. Most of us will remember when the word ‘handicapped’ was completely acceptable. And while ‘disabled people’ is the preferred terminology in the UK, over in the US, the accepted phrasing is ‘people with disabilities’. I found this interesting blog post explaining some of the complexities here.

It’s really difficult. But, I believe that anyone involved in communicating to a wide audience has a responsibility to use correct and current language as best they (we) can. It shows awareness, sensitivity, understanding, intelligence and ultimately retains your credibility as a communicator.

It was quite the opposite for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch when he used the term ‘mentally retarded’ at the Leveson Inquiry this week.

Murdoch wasn’t being malicious – he was praising UK Prime Minister David Cameron for his dedication to his son Evan, who died aged nine years old after battling severe physical and mental disabilities.

Murdoch wasn’t trying to create shock – I really do think that at 81-years-old he just didn’t really think about what he was saying.

And Murdoch might not even have known he had made a mistake – as an Aussie, that terminology is a lot more widely-used Down Under than in England.

But that’s all pretty irrelevant. I think that as the head of a media empire, speaking to a global audience, in the 21st Century, Murdoch had a responsibility to not make that mistake.

He’s not just any 81-year-old Aussie chatting to a few friends down the pub. He’s a man who (whether we like it or not) has a massive reach all across the world. And with that comes responsibility to understand and use the correct and current language of the time and the place he is in.

By not doing so, Murdoch showed himself to be out of touch with the modern world, lacking relevancy and – let’s face it – lacking a bit of common sense.

Words have power, they garner respect and build credibility, and they reflect a person’s understanding of the world.

When you use the incorrect words, the exact opposite becomes true.

A few tips:

  • In business, the internal ‘style guide’ of the organisation should always make reference to correct terminologies, or at least highlight particular areas of caution. This of course depends on your industry and relevant audiences.
  • Check out charity websites: If you’re looking to portray a particular community or group of people, I find it easiest to check relevant websites and copy the language used. For example, if I am writing about diabetes, I’d check Diabetes UK to discover the correct terminology is ‘people with diabetes’.
  • It’s always worth including a list of terminologies in briefing notes if your leadership will be meeting with external stakeholders from particularly interest groups.

Celebrities and the power of Twitter

Brian McFadden and Delta Goodrem

My favourite news story of the week down under, concerns our ex-Westlife friend Brian McFadden.
Brian’s actually been something of a favourite over here in recent years – he’s dating the nation’s sweetheart Delta Goodrem, has had his singles top the Australian charts (yes, really), and is even a host on Australia’s Got Talent.

But finally, sense has prevailed and the Australians are seeing Brian in a more realistic light. His latest single ‘Just the way you are (drunk at the bar)’ has caused huge controversy when listeners to the song suggested the lyrics were encouraging date rape.

In his typical classy style, Brian tried to defend himself on twitter. Unable to see a way out and in a series of cringeworthy tweets he announced that he didn’t want his song played on the radio and he would instead donate all proceeds to charity.

Putting the lyrics of song aside (because I couldn’t face putting myself through a listen), it’s not the first time Brian’s taken to twitter to defend himself. Last year, he let a feud with his ex-wife spill onto his tweets, and he has also stated he doesn’t want ‘ugly followers’ to his twitter site.

Time and time again, Brian actually creates the news story himself by engaging in a debate which should otherwise have been managed through a timely and considered press statement. Not ad-hoc, reactive and rash thought-streams.

Twitter seems to have opened a channel of communication to celebrities, where before a publicist, a manager or an agent would stand between them and the general public. In some respects, it is quite refreshing to hear a personal view, rather than the same rehearsed spin from a press office. But, when reputations begin to be damaged and sales start to fall, these people will find they have the same responsibilities to their job as the rest of us and will have to face up to their employers as their careers start to fall apart.

Celebrities need to realise the power of twitter, but also the responsibility that comes with using it as a tool to communicate. Brian McFadden may be hitting the news this week, but he is just one of many celebrities and sporting stars who have found out the hard way that whilst twitter might help raise a profile, in the wrong hands it can potentially ruin it too.