Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tightrope of What You Can and Can't Say

Oh Harry Reid - now you've gone and done it. Someone dug up a comment that you made about Obama being white enough to win the presidency and it's come back to bite you in the butt. When will people realize that in this hypercritical, scream-a-thon of a world we live in you just don't say stuff like that?

Full disclosure: I'm just as guilty as the rest folks - except I'm smart enough to know I shouldn't say it even after I did.

What prompted this blog post? Well it's not yet another politician putting his foot in his mouth. I pissed off someone and he wrote me a note at 5:30 in the morning and called me Uppity. That's right Uppity. The word the south used to describe slaves who wanted to better themselves and stuck up for themselves. Does Uppity mean anything else to anyone except what I just said? Not in my universe.

Why on earth would anyone use that word? Because he just wasn't thinking.

So that's my point basically. We walk this tightrope - us writers and business people. PR people, and lawyers and all of those who are scared to death of saying the wrong thing, end up not saying anything at all.

We have to find some sort of happy medium. Inform but don't offend. What are the hard and fast rules of actually saying what you mean and not screwing it up? Some thoughts:

If it's something you wouldn't say to your boss in front of his boss you probably shouldn't say it. Same goes for your mother.

If you wish you hadn't said it after you did you shouldn't have said it - We all know that moment of panic when you think you're going to get yelled at by a client, a friend, your parent or whomever - that's a bad sign.

Think about how what you say can be twisted before you say it. Watch Glen Beck, Fox News and Sean Hannity a few times. They are geniuses at twisting what people they want to bring down say and turning it into something offensive. Remember when Obama said the police acted stupidly for arresting a man outside of his own house and it was transformed into he doesn't support our police force? That was Fox News.

Take America's pulse before you create your messages. Now this isn't possible all the time, but we are marketers and PR people. We should be paying attention to what the national conversation, mood and world is saying. A few months after 9-11 a woman named Amber wrote a press release about how pita pockets were a comfort food that could keep us feeling warm and safe. She didn't exactly say that but it's pretty close to what she did say. She worked for a large PR agency. A writer for the Washington Post published the release and ripped her to shreds.

If Amber (it doesn't help to have the name of a stripper) had been paying attention, she would have thought about what an incredibly sensitive subject 9-11 was then. Her bosses and client should have known better too. You don't take advantage of a national tragedy. Unless you want to go to war in Iraq.

Never write or send anything you write when you are angry. An old boss of mine said this a couple of months before he fired me for doing just that. It was a nice firing - there was mutual respect - I had made them a lot of money - and they were good about it. He said, put it away and read it again when you're not angry. Then throw it out.

Listen to the language of the young. One of the only words that still means the same thing it meant when we were kids is cool. Everything else has a different meaning. A lot of it comes from rap music. And I have my own household test market - which certainly helps. A few of them - Tight - it used to mean close - "We are tight." Now it means virginity. Ego - it used to mean someone who was full of themselves. Now it's slang for a male sex organ.

So if you have any other advice for this tightrope walker of language let me know. I'd love to hear from you.

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