May 27, 2020

On the Air

During Disruption, Words Count

By Cherri Holland
Published on Institute for Digital Transformation 

There have been many parallels drawn between the Coronavirus pandemic and WWII. With VE day so recently commemorated, the media has been full of war-time messaging reminders of years gone by: common enemy, mobilization of resources and Winston Churchill’s “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

During wartime, central government messaging focused on getting large populations of people to make personal sacrifices for the common good. And getting the wording right, it was realised, could be a matter of life and death.

In this digital era, persuasive messaging is hitting us on a variety of platforms in 24-hour cycles and the power of semantics – whether you agree or disagree with the message – has been profound.

 ‘Value’ is changing – again 

We have debated the concept of value for a while now. It is useful as a common currency for any type of organization. What constitutes ‘value’ depends on the nature of the enterprise but remains useful as a concept to define, plan and deploy what people will invest in and pay for.1

Over recent years, there has been a further shaping of what ‘value’ means, by regulation. Regulation, such as GDPR, disrupted organization processes at a time of big data and privacy protection. Is the shift now from data security to bio security, and possibly from customer satisfaction to customer safety, again externally driven by regulation?

Some are seeing the humour in the disruption, asking “Who led the digital transformation of your company: CTO? CIO? Covid19?”

In 2017, behavioural economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics.2 This acknowledged the science of behaviour influence through semantics – the crafting of communication – rather than regulation.3

Conscious of the importance of talent retention on the other side of this crisis, I have been asking HR leaders: is the in-company messaging ‘fit for purpose’ to keep people engaged, and the answer has been NO. It is yet another reminder that marketing is a key leadership skill. There are at least four key audiences leaders need to positively influence:

  • Customers
  • Investors
  • Employees
  • Suppliers

Messages need careful crafting to get the outcome you need. (Too often, the crafter of the message writes for him/herself, not the audience.)

Semantics that influence in the right direction

The semantics (what we call narrative devices in the ‘biz’) have been fascinating. I have understood for the first time what is meant by ‘alternative facts’. E.g. masks or no masks? (More harm than good, or lifesaving?) Gov. Cuomo says not wearing masks is disrespectful. “It’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the nurses, the doctors, the people who have been front line workers, the transit workers. You wear the mask not for yourself. You wear the mask for me. It’s a sign of respect to other people. You make me sick. That’s disrespectful.”4

Agree or disagree, you have to admit that the words have power. (He also has parenting advice, if you are interested, about “NDS” – natural defiance syndrome5)

Another example is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s phrase: We cannot allow our fear of going backwards to stop us from going forwards. (His government’s efforts to persuade, cajole and convince a large enough number of freedom-loving aussies to download a tracing app could be seen as entertaining if it weren’t so serious.)

Everyone has become an armchair epidemiologist, but this is no simple matter. Complex matters can’t be reduced to binary decisions as the sound bites imply. Warnings about non-Covid19 deaths related to the lockdown are getting louder. Yet, some decisions remain simple.

Words matter

When word choice is critical, some choices are simple. As Charles Araujo pointed out early in the lockdown, social distancing is not an accurate term. You want people to be remain socially connected but be physicallydistant. I have noticed that people have become standoffish; they avert eyes and seem ready for a fight. I wonder if the constant media bombardment of the term social distancing hasn’t had a profound effect on how people behave – in the wrong direction. That’s a simple matter of getting the word choice right.

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