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“Houston, we’ve had a challenge.”

That’s not the line we remember, because it’s not the line.

Struggling to maintain control of his crippled spacecraft, Apollo 13 pilot Jack Swigert was communicating his dire straits to controllers on the ground in Texas. His ship had just suffered a catastrophic explosion. Swigert and his crewmates were fighting for their lives.

He certainly had a problem.

 “We have a problem in Public Relations,” said the well-respected speaker (who shall remain nameless). “No, we don’t say ‘problem’ in Public Relations…what we have is a challenge.”

Sure, the challenge of which he spoke was not as life-threatening as an explosion half-way to the moon. However, this speaker was talking about trust, and was using exactly the kind of language that keeps people from trusting us

Dictionaries call it “Obfuscation,” which they define as, “to make something unclear.” Those who criticize PR call it “Spin.” I like the less-used definition: “To darken.”

When we use unclear language, we darken our relationship with our audience. As a member of the military during the first Gulf War, I cringed at the overuse of the term “collateral damage” to describe the accidental killing of non-combatants or the destruction of untargeted property. The phrase -- correct in military doctrine, but sounding cold and inhuman -- was used to bludgeon those who supported military efforts to contain Saddam Hussein and later to stop mass-slaughter in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The PRSA Code of Ethics states that members should: “Be honest and accurate in all communications.” When we call a “problem” a “challenge,” call a layoff “right-sizing,” a chemical spill an “inadvertent discharge,” or a power failure an “interruption in service,” we may be technically accurate, but we are not being honest.  We are making an attempt to shade the truth, to soften the blow, or to darken the meaning. 

What we’re doing is eroding trust.  Now, that’s a problem

 

- Mike Pierson
Pikes Peak PRSA Ethics Officer