Buzzwords: Much sound and fury, but signifying little

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A two-nation blended cocktail chat dissecting buzzwords in the current vernacular

By Toni Muzi Falconi and Helen Slater

Our global professional community has tried to change its public relations nomenclature at least since the fifties of the last century, under the notion that a name change can help.

As Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet says of Romeo Montagu,

“Tis but thy name that is my enemy … be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

As Juliet found, changing names or words does not ensure a more certain path of truth, actions or outcomes.

In general it seems the heightened buzzy “naming” quest hopes to reverse the consensus stigma that we, in public relations, predominantly work for the powerful to reach out to the weak, so that they think and act as our client/employer wishes.

Let’s dissect why this is so.

Advocacy

Advocacy is a recent term some are congregating under, with its adopters appearing to believe our current incarnation can be taken more seriously if they borrow from another profession—the legal one. This despite how, in many countries, lawyers are perceived to be working in a more dishonest profession than public relations.

Of course, each new buzzword also has implicit motivations.

In this case for advocacy, we presume to argue issues with stakeholder publics on behalf of clients/employers in the “court” of public opinion. The results are deduced to be two-fold. On one hand we lend legitimacy to the idea that in the court of public opinion, all are entitled to a defence—therefore implying that our “work” is defensive (buffering is the term used by Jim Grunig, borrowed from Cees Van Reel), and that we are therefore entitled to work for anyone.

On the other hand, we omit that the dominant concepts of public opinion have at least two roots: Walter Lippman’s US-based argument, based on the media system as its interpreter and, more recently, Habermas’ European line of reasoning, based on the public sphere.

Perhaps both of these concepts are today obsolete and public opinion (Bauman) has turned liquid.

Regardless of its roots, what we do by employing advocacy in our work is often an exercise in a push-communication, dominant since the second part of the last century, when marketing, advertising, and propaganda permeated the expansion of the western political, military and economic power, also brilliantly called the “American Dream”….

Buzzwords are breeding

In this deliberate propagation, words are hijacked into new environments to be overused, meanings muddied, misused then disposed of without compunction, injected into business conversation to impress or confound.

These buzzwords are not necessarily derogatory, although they can be perceived that way.

One’s motivation for using a buzzword is often merely to fill a void regarding new concepts. Alternatively, it simply “sounds good” and appears to simplify often-complicated (not necessarily complex) ideas.

Buzzwords come about because we want to sound “in the know” and au courant; we want to be seen to be prescient, perhaps driven by a need to appear educated or academic. Buzzwords are also used to obfuscate, manipulate and divert attention and focus thoughts on other, less critical, consequences of our activities.

As George Orwell once said,

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The current rubric of public relations and communication management

Is this not our current, so-called language of communication?

Think of engaging with our communities; working with our stakeholders; identifying influencers; creative thinking to achieve innovative solutions to today’s problems….

We are progressive, we socialize concepts to make sure our publics are authentically engaged and motivated and on board, particularly for co-creation messaging efforts. Whether we’re driving transformation, creating change or having dialogues, we are communicating…. Whether it’s truly effective is over to our audiences.

Following is more of our blended cocktail of considered opinion, dissecting buzzwords that are annoying us the most.

Strategic

Strategy is the path an organization defines to transit from where/what it is today to where/what it wants to be, in a given time frame and a constantly changing operating environment.

Once the path is defined, to act strategically is to identify intermediate objectives and means to achieve them.

Often we are at our most impressive if we call ourselves strategic communicators as opposed to a mere hands-on do-er implementing the strategy. It is at the strategic end of business where we presume to demonstrate our knowledge and competence, forgetting that tactics are often much more relevant and important.

(For many younger professionals, let alone graduating students in public relations, even when they excuse themselves from class for a break they think they are out for a “strategic pee.”)

Influencer

 

Influencing our publics, active and potential stakeholders and audiences is part of our raison d’être. Being an influencer implies there is a level of power unavailable to others that will impact upon results. You could call the targeted people identified for deliberate purposes “thought leaders” or “impacters” or “disruptors.”

Let’s just say they are important for what we want at the time.

We also need to recognize a difference: public relators are there to con-vince (in the Latin sense of vincere cum, win-win) and they also achieve this by con-vincing influencers to act as (back to our first buzzword) “advocates.”

Authentic

 

We strive for our work and ourselves to be seen as “authentic.”

If we are a (public relations) influencer, are we also authentic if we push only one viewpoint or perspective, not acknowledging there’s more than one truth?

What is it we want to achieve by claiming our authenticity? If we’re really authentic, then we’d recognise that if we have to talk about authenticity, we have a problem as it should surely be self-evident in what we say and do.

Engagement

 

What we say and do—we hope—is attracting the attention of (significant) others and keeping them interested.

But it seems not.

Once, one got engaged to be married or had a dinner engagement.

Now, we produce engaging content. We are no longer interested in our work, we are engaged employees. We do not have discussions with (in-person) communities or meet with people to talk, listen and debate.

Instead, we have engagement. What does this mean? Often it’s used when we want to consult or inform. And mostly this implies a pretty one-sided affair, not the two- or multi-lateral conversation it should mean.

How can you have an engagement if there’s only one party involved?

Pitch

 

The advertising world has been pitching for work for eons. If cricket is played on a pitch, we pitch a tent, pitch a baseball, pitch coins or pitch something out, how does it apply to PR?

Pitching is convincing (demonstrating incontrovertibly) others of the validity of our ideas and so persuading them to act to our advantage.

Maybe instead we are disguising what is an old-fashioned sales job as something much more sophisticated or manipulating….

Manipulate

 

Impressing and persuading others is different from convincing (vincere cum, win-win) them.

If manipulation implies only what it means, i.e., using your hands to transform whatever you are working with (fresh pasta of course but also ideas, values, programs, arguments) then of course we manipulate concepts, contents and thoughts as we pretend to communicate.

Storytelling

 

“Tell me a story, tell me a story, tell me a story before I go to bed.”

If public relations professionals are stereotyped by both popular and elite opinions, as “authentic storytellers” much more than “storytellers of authenticity,” implying that the “stories” they tell are everything but authentic, one wonders why our professional and scholarly community has embraced “telling a story” as a continued and repeated explanation of what we do for a living?

Clearly the intention is to underline that the contents (rather than “messages”) we articulate on behalf of our clients or employers in order to improve their relationships with their different stakeholder groups through the tool of communication that is meant to be captivating, not boring. Also that they integrate reason with emotion and use words, images and creativity to attract the attention of others and involve (rather than engage) them in a conversation (rather than a dialogue).

Stakeholders

Eden & Ackerman defined stakeholders as,

“…people or small groups with the power to respond to, negotiate with and change the strategic future of the organisation.”

Bryson extends this to include all those affected by a change.

Judy Gombita has tackled this question of stakeholders, publics and audiences back in this 2010 PR Conversations post, where she demonstrated vividly how these terms risk being muddled and misused because they have become misunderstood buzzwords, rather than accurate terminology for specific purposes.

 

Thought leadership

 

Finally, leading thinking is a place where many aspire to be.

To be a true influencer on the thinking of others requires new perspectives, shedding light, providing insight and inspiring others less able—a truly powerful position.

Assisting our clients or employers to be thought leaders, to bestow the results of their contemplations upon others and receive their acclamation, has a reflective quality for us as communicators, as we are the initiators, the enablers behind the “thinkers” seen to be the authorities in their industries.

But perhaps 21st-century thought leadership is more based upon opinion posing as new perspectives, analysis and ideas to gain traction and publicity in the never-ending jostle for position in a crowded market.

 

Buzz us with your thoughts

Do let us know your thoughts on contemporary buzzwords and their use, including your ideas about what we have described so far.

As PR Conversations is a global, collective platform for discussions and resources, we invite you to offer suggestions on others buzzwords to explore.

Here are some potential words we think could be dissected down the posting road:

 

  • target/audience/message-ing/content
  • public, stakeholder (active, potential)
  • CSR/philanthropy/sustainability
  • integrated communication, integrated marketing, integrated reporting, integrated thinking
  • global, local, international, transnational, glocal
  • corporate or organizational character/DNA/epigenetics
  • management/governance/infrastructure
  • evaluation/measurement/listening
  • content marketing
  • exclusive
  • enhance(ments)
  • content convergence
  • collateral
  • leverage
  • value-add
  • interactive/activity

Your comments will help determine which cocktail to next mix up.

* * *

For a somewhat different perspective, see Stephen Abbott’s The Curse of the Buzzword.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Helen Slater is the director of Strata Communications and is active in the public relations sphere in Auckland, New Zealand. With extensive experience in telling the stories of clients in a wide variety of sectors, including local government, health, property and real estate, Helen is skilled in strategic communication and stakeholder management, as well as developing high-level content to create effective dialogue with key audiences, publics and stakeholder groups.

She operates on a collaborative basis, adding value to her clients to build and enhance reputations with specialties at the strategic level, particularly managing issues and crises and corporate communication.

Read her full (plain English) profile, follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn or contact her by email.


Toni Muzi Falconi, original founder of Toni’s Blog before it became PRConversations, is a seasoned Italian scholar, professional and teacher. Currently he is senior counsel of Methodos, an Italian integrated thinking, cultural change management consultancy and teaches public relations at the Vatican’s LUMSA University in Rome.

Since 2006 he has also taught Global Relations and Intercultural Communication as well as Public Affairs and Issues Management at New York University. Founding chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, and past president of Ferpi, he has written many books, the most recent being ‘Global Stakeholder Relationships Governance: an Infrastructure’ published by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2013.

Although he’s not very active on it, Toni Muzi Falconi does have a Twitter account.

____________________________________________________________________________________

About the image: Thanks to MarketoonTom Fishburne, founder and CEO of Marketoon Studios, whose policy is to allow his cartoons to appear in blogs at no charge–and he even appreciates the reproduction!

43 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but love this post. One problem (advantage) I’ve found in adding an academic perspective to my original practitioner focus on PR is that I’m constantly asking myself (and my students) what do you mean by such-and-such a word? For me it doesn’t matter whether there is universal agreement on meaning, but more that it is clear to those involved in communication what meaning is being intended.

    So many of the words you’ve picked upon here are those where meaning is being deliberately muddled and often claimed as a ‘brand’ concept by consultants and/or managers and/or politicians because it sounds good (supposedly) rather than it helps clear communications.

    Dare I cite Lewis Carroll’s dialogue between Alice and the Mad Hatter regarding meaning what you say and saying what you mean? (http://www.cs.indiana.edu/metastuff/wonder/ch7.html)

    • Heather, one of.my main problems with buzzwords is that we are supposed to be about clarity in communication. Yet we seem to be increasingly about using language that seems intended to obscure meaning. I agree that much of it is about making ourselves appear knowledgable, educated and capable. My question then is, does it mean clear language in fact is seen to devalue what we say and do? And if so, what do we take from that?

      • Helen,
        This is the absolutely crucial and, however confused, the rationale that stimulated me to propose this discussion.
        Thank you Helen for your very precious and fundamental contribution.

        I have just this minute gone through the revision of a colleague’s draft for a contribution to a journal to be signed by one of the top ten italian public policy and economic decision makers. Staggering vacuity integrated by an array of buzzwords.

        Yes, the use of clear language can very much devalue what we say and do and I guess we should say less, much less…. but think more before we do.
        I am well aware that many will say they don’t have time (another one).
        But please, dear friends and colleagues, please do ‘take your time’.

        Like Federico Fellini’s final words from his last film (1990) ‘La luce della luna’…se tutti facessimo un po’ di silenzio, forse potremmo capire. If we all were silent for a bit, maybe we might even understand.

        • It does depend on what we define clear language to be. For some, it’s simple/simplistic language (the old benchmark of writing for a 12-year-old – which I find condescending to 12-year-olds as well as to lay-people in general). My perception of clarity in language is to add to, not devalue, Toni, to increase understanding whilst communicating the depth of thinking lying behind what we’re saying. The draft you”ve been editing, for instance, perhaps is more about lack of robust thinking, than simplicity or clarity of language. This lack of thought (and knowledge), as we’ve discussed, is most often disguised with the use of the buzzwords we’ve started to dissect. Clarity too, is about taking what can to many be dense and dare I say, academic, prose, and making it more understandable for lay-people. To do this is a particular skill, because indeed one can simplify the writing to the point of removing the core meaning and subtleties that make up the whole, turning it into a shadow of the original.

          And as has been said, silence can speak volumes and its wise and judicious use can indeed add to understanding.

          • we might suggest that engagement occurs when the parties are involved both in the decision making process and in the implementation of that decision; while involvement happens when one of the parties makes information available to all its stakeholders incentivating feedback towards the decision and its implementation. In this sense engagement is real.
            Your and other prc commenters and readers take on this distinction?

  2. This is indeed a wonderful addition to PR Conversations Toni and (first-time guest author) Helen Slater! I’m of the opinion your thinking and writing style complements one another quite well in this cocktail post (although I know for certain that “strategic pee” is a Toni-ism).

    Regarding other buzzwords to consider for dissection down the road, over the last few weeks (primarily in the media) I keep hearing “double down” being used. (The new “digging in their heels” and most-often used in relation to politicians on the huckster.) The other phrase (which I’m actually quite fond of) that seems to be getting too big of a workout is “unpacking” an idea/concept/strategy.

  3. Love the post Toni and Helen.

    Since I conduct scores of interviews as part of PR/C function assessments/reviews each year as well as conducting in-house PD sessions for PR/C departments, I constantly run into this problem. Not only is the excepted/expected language of the organization different from organization to organization, the language created and/or used by the PR/C folks is different. Not for every business or communication term, phase or buzzword, but for many. Leaving either me scratching my head – or worse, people I’m working with scratching theirs!

    Simply look at the measurement world we have created in PR/C the past few years and the buzzwords that have followed: PR ROI; valid metrics; roi of expectations; turning data into insights; return on engagement; etc. I doubt if we would agree on what they mean, let alone what they are supposed to mean!

    While language is a living thing, it seems many in this profession live simply to create new language.

    • Fraser – only yesterday someone told me they’d been in a global PR meeting for a significant brand where the term “PR value” was used when discussing media coverage. Turns out this is our dreaded old friend “AVE” which has been decried by the likes of AMEC, but reborn under this fluffy term with zero meaning.

    • I have been at a conference the past two days, and one subject that arose in the breaks over coffee was the use of terminology and how exactly the same words can be used in a particular context, yet the meanings ascribed to those words are very different, creating mis-understanding.

      One that comes to mind is the now popular co-creation. What does this in fact mean to you? Especially as it relates to brands? I have a particular viewpoint on this (I wonder who invented it? It almost has a biblical connotation to me!) and yet it was clear my view of it was not shared by others at the conference. I was reassured to find I wasn’t alone in how I define co-creation when relating it to brands, but it is this type of example that demonstrates that when we use these words, we need to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

  4. Intriguing post. I work in the neglected “nexus” or “white space” between two fields and two spheres: the environment where toxins are recognized, and health where they are not – at least in dentistry, where they are most long-lasting and pernicious, as we still tolerate and sanction/allow dental amalgam mercury installed in people without their knowledge or informed written consent.

    This is pure awareness, education, outreach and PR, because nobody wants to pay to fight the third rail in America. So while Nepal and Nigeria join the long list of nations aggressively phasing it out for health reasons, we are not. We have “Conflict Regulations” and “Conflict Dentistry” in the U.S., wreaking as much havoc as “Conflict Diamonds” did in Africa.

    We can use all the help we can get from PR Conversations and PR professionals. Welcome you to read, critique and help spread my new Issue Paper, “For Good Health, Integrated Whole Body Care, and Making Chronic Diseases History,” posted on http://www.hiddenriverhealthchallenge.blogspot.com. Welcome any leads and intros to celebrity spokespeople. Would like to launch a “NOMAD” and “NOMAS” No Mercury Amalgam Dental/No Mercury Amalgam Silver Fillings campaign. @LauraHRussell

  5. According to socio-linguist Robert Leonard, people use such corporate-speak not to convey actual information but to show they’re “insiders” of certain groups. That’s why you can actually spot people in different parts of a company speaking their own unique “dialects” of Buzz. “Getting our arms around this issue,” in one team is another’s “let’s take the 30,000 foot view”.

    In the same way, one group might want to “ballpark” results while another just wants to “guesstimate” them. Additionally, one team’s work is “bleeding edge” while another’s is “out of the box”.

    At the “end of the day” though, they’re all far more concerned with impressing than expressing.

    • Shelley, one term that has gained currency in our government circles is ‘optics.’ Apparently, they like to see what the optics are on certain policies, issues, politics. Hmmm. I guess it’s an extension of the ‘eyeballs’ that used to be a measure of how many people looked at something. Shakespeare would be proud to know how his coined word of eyeball has survived and influenced (Shakespeare the influencer).

  6. As a big fan of playful Twitters (like @unsuckit) that poke fun at these kinds of things, bravo. I think one of Helen’s replies already summed up what I wanted to say “problems with buzzwords is that we are supposed to be about clarity in communication. Yet we seem to be increasingly about using language that seems intended to obscure meaning.” This.

    I’ve heard radio call-in shows that award prizes for those who call in, babble in their business jargon, than other listeners have to call and guess what the business or job is. Every profession, every vocation has a language unto itself. That inner circle shorthand can be helpful, but than can also create it’s own set of problems:

    – When the terminology becomes so overused, meaning is watered down or lost. See also Epic, Awesome, etc… or the cited Engagement (which is basically passive vs active, like clicking a RT or Like button is somehow an ‘active’ outcome).
    – Or, as Helen states, when that glossary of terms gets written more to obfuscate that to explain or define. Made worse, when some practitioners hide behind their babbling biz buzz.
    – When it’s a messy web of words, the jargon and company slang so unique that organizations must invest in additional training to communicate w/ employees, employees w/ each other.

    Lots to think about as I’m planning to tackle my website and bio, make sure my rewrites actually say something and aren’t just blathering buzzwords. FWIW.

  7. No doubt, we love the idea that Public Relations is pure in name and purpose — that it serves to match exclusive interests with mutual needs and for mutual gain. As such, new articulations are sure to be positioned as buzzwords.

    But that PR has never found its center of gravity suggests that Public Relations might be the original euphemism. That the industry floats new terms with such zeal and regularity is proof enough that it quite literally does not know what it is talking about, and wants to.

    Let’s be honest, Public Relations smacks of mollification. Storytelling is either too vapid to take seriously or a ruse for advancing an agenda. Authenticity should be an assumed characteristic, never named. And Strategic Communications is as silly as Accurate Accounting.

    We’ll know when Public Relations is the right term when the barrage subsides. In the mean time, it is ironic in the extreme that practitioners of positioning and storytelling and authentic advocacy, etc. have failed to find and defend an enduring frame.

    • Agree with you Alan, re authenticity – that was part of our point in the post. Strategic communications? Well, I have seen a lot of work done that is purely mechanistic PR tactics, without an ounce of strategy (direction, meaning) behind it. You can communicate without strategy with publics, audiences, communities, stakeholders – call them what you will. It is done a lot, and provides PR with a poor reputation.

      As to accurate accounting – well, I am definitely not an accountant so my word on this is my untutored perspective. Accounting is an art – there are ways to make the numbers add up, good and bad – to achieve a required result.

      I am not sure why you say public relations smacks of mollification – can you describe that in more depth?

      • To the uninitiated, public relations conveys the idea that someone or something is trying or intending to relate to a public. It’s a soft term that raises questions more than giving answers. Of course within the industry and its academy there are precise meanings of publics and relations/relationships, but these don’t sustain like manufacturing, finance, R&D, etc. PR conveys as a euphemism because there would only be a need to “relate” to a public when there is a problem in the relationship with that public. Who could not conclude that its purpose is to mollify, mitigate or somehow manipulate? PR is, ironically, the worst term for an industry that seeks to elicit trust. The name is a PR nightmare.

  8. Whilst appreciating this post is about use of buzzwords by public relations practitioners, let’s remember this isn’t just a PR matter, even though it matters in PR. Indeed, most professions as well as organisational functions, the media and the public more generally – and of course, academics and scientists are as prone to using words that may be thought of as ‘buzzwords’ or at least terminology that is lacking in clarity of meaning (deliberately or otherwise).

    I decided to look at the etymology of ‘buzzword’ which apparently dates from 1946 as Harvard student slang for words used in lectures or reading. Most other ‘buzzwords’ originate outside of public relations – and generally the criticism of their use isn’t directed our way. The terms management or marketing speak are more commonly used.

    Indeed, I’d argue that anyone looking to promote a book or a consultancy is guilty of creating a term that is branded to their work. On Sunday, The Observer noted the demise of the popularity of ‘nudge’ with the UK prime minister (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jun/01/nudge-economics-freakonomics-daniel-kahneman-debunked). The terminology of Tony Blair has become known by its own term: Blairisms (or often B-LIAR-isms).

    Such terms are unlikely to stand the test of time – but that’s the beauty of language. Words come, words go. Their meanings change and change again. In the case of English it is elastic and can accommodate from other languages which is to its credit.

    In my view anyone who tries to claim precise meanings for any word in perpetuity is acting like King Canute or should that be Cnut?

    • Yes Heather. Words come and go and indeed langauge is infinitely elastic, especially English. For me, buzzwords become a.problem when people using them do so to cover for lack of knowledge or to create exclusion. It helps when everyone using the words are meaning the same thing in the same.context. It is understood too that a word in one industry can have a different meaning in another industry. That’s why we have to take extreme care when uaing words that are flavour of the month.

    • Entirely agree Heather. Let me confess that I ‘have been there’ before.

      In 2004 the second edition of my book ‘governare le relazioni’ (sole 24 ore) had an appendix of 30 pages dedicated to a ‘dictionary’ in Italian of the meaning of the infinite number of English buzzwords related to public relations that were then being used by my colleagues in mostly futile, useless and meaningless ways.

      Ironically, many of those English buzzwords had a Latin origin with the ridiculous outcome that Italian professionals were using English terms derived from Latin pronounced as if they were English…. This exercise was in large part the result of a collaborative effort by members of Ferpi, the Italian PR association that I chaired at the time using the association website as a platform.

      Successive editions of the book still circulate and students still use this ‘dictionary’. But, helas!, it could well do today with a total rehash…..

      Also, based on this successful experiment, my very good and reputed friend Rossella Sobrero, the principal key to Ferpi’s excellent relationships with the non-profit sector, launched last year amongst the non-profit community a similar project striving to arrive at a commonly accepted language in this very important cluster of Italian culture, economy and community.

      We have now reached the 200 terms number and the outcome will be published in a few weeks/months.

      So, you see, with the initiative here in collaboration with Helen, I come as a repeated but not repentent sinner.

  9. I’m not sure if it was the intention of the authors but this dissertation seems to be embedded with dense market/PR-speak and numerous distortions of English, notably the modern habit of turning nouns into verbs e.g. to “transit”, or “we articulate”, “impactors”–to impact means to squash down, so an impactor must be a machine that squashes cars or something, this arises from the common confusion between the use of impact (a noun) and affect (a verb).

    “Push communication” – is this some kind of academic jargon?

    So, 5 out of 10 for effort but if you tried to publish this in any magazine to read by the general public I’d have my subbing pen out, maybe suitable for a PR 101 paper if you’re trying to make the little ‘uns think about what you’re trying to say.

    On the other hand, if it was the intention of the authors, they have done a sterling job in highlighting the buzzwords that make so much PR-speak impenetrable.

    • Chris – hello there. Chris from Chch? It was, believe me, the intention to highlight the buzzwords and I am pleased we succeeded. Push communication, I think, is used by people wanting to sound quite knowledgeable about talking to people, most often people they don’t know but want to know, but really don’t want to get any response. But Chris, you know this! As a journo you deal with PR peeps all the time and enjoy winding them up and letting them go . . .

    • As “editor” of this jointly written post I feel I must weigh in, and point out to Chris Hutching that both “articulate” and “impactors” were used within the post as identified buzzwords.

      Perhaps you can call Toni and Helen out on the “transit,” but I’m of the belief that it was more of a “moving” metaphor in terms of the use of strategy (going down a path). Here is the sentence in question:

      Strategy is the path an organization defines to TRANSIT from where/what it is today to where/what it wants to be, in a given time frame and a constantly changing operating environment.

      You, of course, are free to find that this metaphor does not work.

      I’m not sure why in the grading of this post you speak about a magazine read by the general public. We’ve never claimed PR Conversations as a generalist platform: It is very much “targeted” (even though I dislike that word) at practitioners and academics in the public relations and communication management realm. The ones who we feel should not be lazy and resort to these buzzwords in question.

      For more information about this blog, I point you to our About page.

      Of course we welcome readers and commenters of all stripes. I also appreciate the fact that you’ve come to comment on a post co-written by one of your compatriots. Feel free to stop by and comment anytime.

  10. I notice how few of the terms listed are unique to public relations (if any). Clearly the global communications environment acts upon our profession much more than we drive the worldview of practice.

    • Natalie, with the exception of “Stakeholders” (and possibly “Storytelling” and “Engagement”…at least when it comes to employees), likely most of these buzzwords are employed by marketers on a regular basis, sometimes those who claim they work in “PR.”

      I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at your line: Clearly the global communications environment acts upon our profession much more than we drive the worldview of practice.

      So much for being persuasive! 🙂

  11. This whole discussion is interesting. For better or for worse, buzzwords are given a lot of power in language and easily derail otherwise helpful conversation.

    I find myself going back to grade-school reading instruction when in the presence of buzzwords—I look for context clues. How a word is used reflects more on the buzz-worthiness than the word itself. For example, few would argue that ‘authentic’ has its own share of buzz, but “she is an authentic leader” is a fine statement, whereas “she leads with deep authenticity” will roll many eyes. Buzzwords are more about user error than faulty language.

    • Stephen, how buzzy a word is indeed about context and usage.

      There nothing wrong with any of these words on a stand-alone basis. The trouble is, we tend to pick them up and throw them about with abandon, careless of how they’re picked up and understood.

      Having said that, I do wonder about stakeholders as for me it always conjures up a mental picture of people advancing holding wood stakes against the primitive hordes (or vampires . . .maybe too much TV influence here) but, it does hold a legitimate meaning.

      My greatest concern is that we use these words far too much, without exploring other language that can perhaps be better employed in their place so that we could communicate more effectively. For example, engagement is a word that is used to denote involvement – why do we say engagement or engaged when we mean, in fact, talking with, interested in, or involved in? These words are far more expressive of the context than ‘engagement.’ I lament, in myself and others, the paucity of our language.

      On one hand, we are creating new words to fit our technological advances, but we’re losing the richness, colour and texture we used to have. When reading the authors of previous centuries, our language now pales into insignificance in comparison.

      • Helen – I like your last paragraph because it raises a couple of different thoughts. First, it suggests that modern ‘buzzword’ language is dull, bland, sterile, flat rather than reflecting richness, colour or texture. Words are often appropriated (such as engagement) and have the life sucked out of them. Frequently this is through usage that is about ‘content’ creation or process-oriented reporting, rather than any real love of communications or expression. Perhaps we need more imagination in the words that are created and allow new expressions to flourish.

        The second thought relates to the idea that authors of past centuries were better. Certainly there are examples of wonderful language use by poets, authors and playwrights. But was the equivalent business language not frequently worse in being obtuse, convoluted and accessible only to the minority in society who could read and write? Local dialects offer wonderful variation but for people to be easily understood in wider communities, such narrow flavour in usage has given way to the equivalent of fast-food speak. And, as Toni illustrates below, this global fast-food style of language often gives local indigestion.

        • Heather, your example of past business language being obtuse reminds me of how some people—sometimes out of mockery—rattle off Latin legal phrases without any real understanding. The need to sound important and wise overrides any need to be accurate, which we all seem to agree is the essence of the buzzword phenomenon.

        • Ah yes Heather. Lost in translation is a common problem in every language.

          There are many expressions in other languages that simply don’t translate to English as well. You are right that business language of the past was obtuse and difficult.

          I wonder however, if we aren’t doing the same… using buzzwords to be self important just as those business people of the past did and as Stephen has expressed so well. In the process narrowing our language just as you refer to re dialects.

          Maybe it’s time to get back to basics and learn our respective languages properly to their fullest extent through reading and writing, expanding our horizons and vocabularies.

    • In my country we made many years ago an attempt to find an Italian equivalent to stakeholders. Our effort concluded negatively. Portatori di interesse (interest bearers) was good but much to similar to portatori di handicap (handicap bearers). So we decided to stick with stakeholders. Unfortunately in the Italian language we may use foreign terms in the plural only without the final s, but few journalists or PR’s are aware of this grammar rule… In short, it is a mess.

      As for engagement and involvement I reiterate that the two are different and imply diverse attitudes, efforts and policies on the part of the organization as argued in the original post.

      • Yes Toni. Often, people will say something like “they were really engaged” when they mean “they were listening” or “let’s carry out community engagement” when they mean “let’s tell them what we’ve decided.” Or maybe “I engaged with him about the design,” when they had a conversation. It is all about context, and often engaged is used when it’s meant we want to get people actively involved in a project. As you say, different.

        Understanding what’s meant and everyone knowing what’s meant to start with helps.

  12. Toni: You said “we might suggest that engagement occurs when the parties are involved both in the decision making process and in the implementation of that decision; while involvement happens when one of the parties makes information available to all its stakeholders incentivating feedback towards the decision and its implementation. In this sense engagement is real.”

    Agree. Engagement is to me, as you suggest, when parties are both / all part of decision-making and its implementation. Involvement to me is a more nebulous word – a father can be involved, after all, in a pregnancy, but the mother is engaged in it!

  13. Hello Helen and Toni! Sorry for coming to this so late but holidays and a manic schedule meant I kept saving this for a rainy day. Today is such a one so thanks for a great post. I very much enjoyed it and the ensuing comments. There’s lots of food for thought.

    On a lighter note I love the idea of a ‘strategic pee’. I shall adopt these forthwith, along with strategic coughs.

    A smile crept across my face though when I read your biogs which use some of the very words you discuss. Ah well, as you say, Helen, as long as it clarifies what you do and does not obfuscate!

    My particular current bug bear is ‘reaching out’. If anyone else asks me to reach out to them, they’ll find my arms plenty long enough!

    I very much look forward to the follow-up!

    • Thank you Eva. Good to hear from you. Reaching out is a weird and popular one. Like so many other terms we use to manipulate an organization’s attempt to achieve consensus, it is messianic in its inspiration and likens the organization to our stereotyped view of a prophet…..
      Unfortunately I use it, together with advocate, but now,after your subtle memento, I will be more careful. I will be more attentive to Federico Fellini and his final message on the loudness and authentic sense of silence.( wow, how manu buzzwords…). My best

  14. […] We are not just talking about a few people sporting Google Glasses, or measuring their heartbeats via the latest wristband or smart watch. We are talking about organisations truly adopting total transparency as their interactions are life-logged, transmitted and shared by stakeholders, users or consumers—in the spirit of Toni Muzi Falconi and Helen Slater’s post, call us what you will. […]

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