Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Eight Most Overused Phrases in Public Relations

In public relations college courses around the country, they're teaching how to write a press release, plan a campaign, draft a corporate speech, and how to work with journalists.

But one thing you won't find in the textbooks are the oft-used go-to phrases that public relations professionals lean on when a reporter calls or e-mails looking for comment. These phrases and responses are written in stone and probably go back to the Paleolithic Era, when some caveman had to explain to the rest of his tribe what the large mysterious black monolith was that just appeared outside their home on the rocks.

At one time, these phrases may have carried a lot of weight in the press, but now they seem as fresh as doing "the wave" in a baseball stadium. Yet, they are still used often to make (or not make) a point. Somebody crafted these words carefully to avoid misinterpretation or perhaps really saying anything at all, so I would not be surprised if a lawyer was somehow involved in their creation.

Perhaps it is high time to retire some of these phrases, since they are used verbatim over and over again. You would think the same spokesperson wrote everybody's script that they kept in front of them. And with that retirement should come new phrases to replace them, just to keep the media intrigued and on their toes.

Here are the eight deadly phrases, and possible new replies that the able-bodied publicist can add to their bag of magic media relations tricks. Beware, as all of them have high annoyance factors and may cause journalists to despise the profession even more.

  • "No comment": I have to start with the most common one, which I wrote about at length previously. An all-purpose "I have nothing I want to say" pair of words that truly has nothing to add or subtract to the conversation, will not admit guilt or innocence, and is basically a placeholder until one hopes the reporter goes away or there's something more clever to say. Despite best intentions, it usually implies you're hiding something, whether you mean it that way or not.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "Fuggedaboutit!" More intimidating than the original, especially when used with a heavy Brooklyn accent. I suggest you watch the film "The Warriors" a few times to perfect the tone and emphasis on the "ged" syllable. The reporter may think twice about calling back for a response.

  • "He/she is leaving to spend more time with their family" or "He/she is departing to pursue other interests": When a company takes the high road and doesn't want to get their fingers dirty in whatever mess has been dwelling internally, these are the old stand-bys lines when somebody is leaving and they just don't want to talk about it. Employment can be a litigious minefield, so the less said, the better. There's an ironic humor to these particular phrases because let's face it, if they are now unemployed, they probably are spending more time with their family or working on their tennis or golf game. However, when you read these lines, you just don't buy it, though. They've been stated millions of times as part of statements and press releases, and by that very overuse, you know there's more to the story. So let's just drop the pretense!
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "We've got an amazing job opening here at one of the hottest companies in the business!" Turn the tables and take advantage of this sudden open position by promoting it to potential job candidates! Yes, you can wish the sucker well as they're leaving out the front door, but don't forget, you have to replace them right away. So you may as well make it a call to potential job candidates and look good in the process.

  • The lawsuit... "has no merit"/"is frivolous"/"is an abuse of process": In this great litigious land, there are two sides to every argument, and the one on the suit receiving end basically wants everybody to know this matter is a lot of BS. You can bet the defense will come up with one of these handy phrases to explain what a waste of time and money the suit is. It's usually followed by something along the lines of "The truth will be proven in court" or some other virtuous statement. I'm always expecting the plaintiff's attorney to say something like, "Well, you'll see who has merit, bud."
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "Can't we all just get along?" An absolute direct plea for sympathy from the public, implying that you really don't want to fight, you may even be an innocent bystander and that you'd rather just settle this over a beer and game of darts than take up the court's precious time.

  • "We don't comment on stories based on rumors and speculation" or "We don't comment on speculation and rumor": Well, what do you comment on? In a shaky economy of takeovers and plugs being pulled, surrounded by lots of blogs, speculation and rumor are practically a commodity. And everybody knows that if you read it on a blog, then there must be a kernel of truth to it, right? Who does not want to know who is in trouble, who is on their way out, who is being acquired and who is doing the acquiring?
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "If I find out, you'll be the first to know." The ultimate in service and friendliness to a reporter. If they weren't your pal before saying this, you'll be tennis partners in no time with this helpful reply. Of course, if you say this to more than one reporter, you may have to do a conference call with them when you do find out.

  • "They're on vacation and can't comment at this time": Very similar to the first classic phrase but with a twist. It's not like the CEO doesn't want to speak with you... they're on vacation, so they're unavailable to communicate! I wish I could give you a comment, but, dang, the CEO's just not around so I'm just plain out of luck! Of course, Carl Icahn may have just announced a hostile takeover of your board, at the same time the CEO decided to go skeet shooting in Pennsylvania. Let's face it, the CEO gave you orders -- "You are never to interrupt me while I am on vacation or I'll have your head! And don't say anything to anybody until I get back! Not even traffic directions!"
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "They went on a train trip through the mountains of Outer Mongolia, and the cell phone reception is really bad there. Can this wait until they text me back?" Going on vacation doesn't sound far enough. Your CEO really needs to be out of touch so basically everything stops until your CEO's return. Upping the ante, you can also opt for: "They are on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, and told me before they left that any interruption would untangle complex negotiations that may accidentally set off a war in the Middle East and escalate to a global conflict in which we may never recover." Well, heck, it's hard to argue with that!

  • "They have ended their romance, but remain friends": Celebrities break up just like you and me, except they often have spokespeople announce it for them. It's an admirable ploy since publicists want to make their clients seem like civil mature adults like that famous trio Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. However, life is usually not this tidy. Wouldn't you love the publicist to actually say what the rest of the mere mortals do when they break up: "They ended their romance, so now he's a total wreck, drinking heavily, and writing some new song lyrics about how badly it all ended. You can read about it on his blog."
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "He's back on the market so let the canoodling commence!" Let's face it -- your client will be "exchanging more than glances" with somebody else in the immediate future, so you may as well let the cat out of the bag to Page Six and other gossip columnists. No tears are involved and it still does not show that any real heartbreak has been experienced, so your client's dignity is intact... somewhat.

  • "They ask everybody to respect their privacy at this difficult time": The newest phrase on the list, a result of scandal, divorce, and embarrassment becoming the soup du jour with the advent of blogs, TMZ and investigative reporting, it is essentially a plea to "back off, bud." Employed by actors (i.e. Christian Bale for allegedly slugging his mother and sister in a London hotel) to politicians (i.e. former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani's estrangement from the rest of his family), the statement implies that somehow any further reporting on the story is an infringement on privacy. Now when did that ever stop anybody? Just for the record, Lindsay Lohan's publicist asked that people "please respect my privacy at this time" after the actress checked into rehab in January 2007. I guess the statute of limitations on privacy respect ended pretty shortly after that.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "My client has dug them self into a hole all the way to China, therefore there's just no point writing about them anymore." Back in the 70's, the very warped writer Chris Miller said in National Lampoon magazine that if you didn't know how to end a story, just have all the characters run over by a truck. So why can't this theory be applied to public relations? There's always the religious salvation approach: "My client has found God written on the cap of a Snapple bottle and has decided to devote the rest of their life to working in a garden on a hill in Italy." Not only will you get privacy, you'll get admiration!

  • "We have not seen the lawsuit": The ultimate time killer when "no comment" will not do. When a lawsuit is filed, somehow it seems to take long, long time for the defendant's attorneys to actually lay eyes on it. That suit could be on the bottom of a towering pile of papers or they are at a McDonald's for lunch all the way across town from where the lawsuit is filed. Ever wonder why nobody in the legal profession has ever publicly stated how long it takes to get possession of a lawsuit? Or how long it takes to read it? While a great device to provide a little time while you figure out something better to say, the distinct disadvantage is that the plaintiff's lawyer has already piled on the sordid details of the case to the press, with juicy quotes and making you look like dirt.
SUGGESTED REPLACEMENT: "I'm legally blind, such bad cataracts you shouldn't know from, so I have actually not seen the lawsuit. I'm waiting for my secretary to come back from lunch and read it to me, and then I'll let you know what I think." This seems a little more legitimate, don't you think?

* A special thanks to my wife Valerie and friend Nora for suggesting a couple of these prizewinners.


Pedro said...

Great list, Drew. I'd like to add the phrase used when companies settle with the government or another party but don't want to concede they settled because they were over a barrel: "we have reached this settlement to avoid the expense and distraction of protracted litigation..."

Bree said...

What about: "We're taking it (very) seriously." The Consumerist has a great compendium of companies using this phrase to dodge everything from rat heads in canned green beans to phallic fun straws.

Anonymous said...

I think Julia Roberts used the break-up advise on Letterman when she and Benjamin Bratt broke up. Letterman asked her, and she responded to the women of America that he was indeed single again.