The power of words in swaying public opinion
In the US, the Obama administration has just introduced something called sequestration. These are actually mandatory spending cuts – what the Europeans call austerity measures but somehow it sounds a rather less painful practice than that short sharp word ‘cuts’. (Btw, austerity to the Germans has very positive connotations of good standards of fiscal discipline, austerity measures are very acceptable in Germany!)
But aren’t we supposed to be cutting the debt? Well it seems governments the world over have re-defined national debt as something called deficit, carefully ignoring the significant fiscal differences. You see, you can reduce the deficit while increasing the debt, so that works well for governments. Commentators and reports continue to confuse these two fiscal disciplines, so it’s no wonder that the electorate is confused – one survey in the UK found that only 10% of those interviewed understood that the government was only aiming to reduce the deficit, while increasing the debt.
Because of course, governments still continue to spend. But spend, spend, spend isn’t – it seems – what they do. What they do is they continue to invest – nice choice of words again. A debate earlier this week pitted Fox News against a contributing commentator in an investment versus spend debate – what do the words really mean.
Governments around the world started printing money to help ease the debt crisis – they called it something rather nice called quantitative easing. Actually the printing presses were rolling out dollars and pounds and euros, backed not by gold bars but by government securities which in turn pushed money into the financial markets (you know, the people that were supposed to have caused the whole economic fiasco in the first place).
But the media too has its own way with words, and once they tag you (or brand you), positively or negatively, you’re done. In the UK ‘welfare reforms’ have become the ‘Mummy tax’ and therefore bad, genetically modified wheat may have a place in helping the international food crisis but once the environmentalists dubbed GM crops ‘Frankenstein vegetables’, it was toast.
So from a PR perspective, once the media brands you as ‘troubled’ or ‘failing’ you need to re-group and see how you can deal with the crisis – maybe you need to redefine those ‘job cuts’ as simply ‘restructuring’.
As Frank Luntz has shown in his book Words That Work, the power of words can be as simple as changing a few letters. When the gambling lobby sought to create a more positive public image, it changed from ‘gambling’ to ‘gaming’; when a group of very influential scientists pointed out that the planet was cooling, ‘global warming’ changed to ‘climate change’; ‘inheritance tax’ is only for those rich people and they deserve to pay, a ‘death tax’ hurts us all!