I’m writing about public relations in plain English. At the same time, I have the ability to write in ways that might not be fairly described as plain English. Some would call it “spin,” which is what critics of President Obama are saying about him this very afternoon as he attempts to sell the Administration’s health care plan to a handpicked audience in Portsmouth, NH.
One man’s spin is another man’s truth. Or another man’s “strategic ambiguity.”
One of the famous old sayings I never bought is that sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.
Are you kidding? Words can break your bones, your heart, your spirit — whereas sticks and stones have been survived by legions of brave, tough individuals from soldiers to nonviolent protesters.
We are wordy people, said Kenneth Burke, one of the giants of modern rhetorical analysis — the Aristotle of the twentieth century, perhaps. Freud theorized that slips of the tongue were not at all meaningless but a veiled revelation of barely concealed feelings and thoughts beneath the socially acceptable surface. Aristotle used the poet Homer’s creations — particularly the crafty Odysseus — as models of the art of rhetoric. The master of words, the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote that words break, crack, fall apart: I can not say exactly what I mean.
Public relations is about meanings, says Robert Heath, a leading PR scholar. To be about meaning is to be about words — at least to a large extent. It may sound contradictory to tell you that more than 90% of what we perceive of a speaker is NONverbal — body language, eye contact, tone of voice, pace of speech, and so forth. But when Mr. Obama held his press conference today, he was speaking verbally and nonverbally simultaneously. He wasn’t doing a mime performance on the health care debate.
The reason Obama couldn’t mime his explanations and defenses of the health care plan is that the plan — like so many other public issues — is far too complex for nonverbal communication. Words are needed. Yes, simple words are needed. The shorter the utterance, the clearer the audience’s understanding. Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, an excellent, even eloquent author, had this advice for writers: Short words are the best. And what he advised was shorter sentences, shorter words.
Fair enough. Short and simple and clear. Right? So why don’t politicians speak plainly? Why aren’t press releases clear and, in the cliche of the day, “transparent?” Let me answer a question with a question: Why don’t you say exactly what you mean all the time? When are those times when you know well enough that you can’t speak plainly? How do you handle yourself at those times?
It may not be popular to say this — nor is it profound to say that life isn’t simple. It’s simple in songs that say that life is just bowl of cherries or as Forest Gump says, Life is a box of chocolates. But, really. We all know that it isn’t. Relationships are neither simple nor clear, nor are public issues. And while it is admirable to make our best effort to use simple, clear language, it is also an inconvenient truth that complex issues and products and relationships — highly emotionally charged ones and very technical ones — are not always fairly and accurately described in simple terms.
Related to this communication problem is the matter of nuance — when what we’re trying to chracterize is neither this nor that, neither black nor white, neither complete right nor utterly wrong. Much of life falls into that gray area. Neither fish nor fowl. Neither socialist nor capitalist. Neither conservative nor liberal.
To be sure, there are enemies of nuance. Propagandists — Hitler’s technique of “the big lie” — insist very loudly and repetitively that you are either this or that and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Hitler’s lie was to blame Jews for Germany’s troubles. Stalin blamed the peasants. Mao blamed the capitalists. Ahmadinejad blames The Great Satan. Some radio talk show hosts insist there’s no middle ground between the patriots and the liberals, where “liberal” means cowardly, anti-American traitors and worse. The blogospherical left blamed Bush. Senator Barry Goldwater, campaigning for the U.S. presidency and losing to Lydon B. Johnson in l964, said that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation is no virtue.
Propagandistic language operates on the emotions by nuking the moderate, the middle — which is exactly the place recommended famously by Aristotle as “the golden mean.”
Unlike propaganda, public relations and its ancestor, rhetoric, operate in the everyman’s land between propagandistic extremes. At its best, PR isn’t about spin but nuance because what PR deals with — complexity, crisis, chaos, issues, among other things — inhabits the world of nuance not simplicity. Thoreau advised Simplify, simplify! But read his journals and you’ll quickly discover he’s anything but simple to read. He’s a mystic, a poet, a symbolist. The poet and the scientist in him are fascinated by the intricacies of the world, which do sometimes seem to present themselves in a brilliant simple flash.
Words can hurt me. And you, too. Are doctors who perform a safe, legal abortion “baby killers?” Are citizens who protest against health care reform “wackos?” Does believing in the value of affirmative action make you a “moon bat?” Does sleeping with your boyfriend make you a “slut?”
The art of politics is compromise, not coercion. And what is compromise but an address found in the land of nuance? It is this land that public relations is often called to map and express and inhabit and name and articulate.