Working in a political communications team, my job is to garner as much relevant coverage as possible to raise my clients’ profiles to further their causes. For media outlets, they work to keep their readers informed with vital information. PRs and journalists are both well-versed in linguistic strategies to ensure their article stands out in a crowded marketplace – one such strategy is by creating a captivating headline.
Although we all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, those of us who work in media know that crucial clicks can depend upon that one single eye-catching phrase the reader sees as they peruse a menu of articles.
Which is why anyone in the public eye must be incredibly considerate of the language they use. One phrase, one word, can be a catalyst for a click-worthy headline – but it may not be the one you want.
Take, for example, the stories after Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced a national lockdown in Wales on the 19th of December. Following his speech, we saw headlines along the lines of ‘Mark Drakeford blames “selfish” actions of public for latest lockdown.’
In fact, Drakeford admitted that “it is the summation of the small acts of selfishness that in some way all of us are prone to in our lives” which has caused the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Wales. His words were a fair admission that every single person has most likely bent the rules at some point or another, as is human nature. What his words were not was a vicious slamming of the public and labelling of his people as inherently self-centred – yet this is the impression we got in the headlines.
Words hold different values and can infer different meanings; it’s the beauty of language. If someone’s hungry, they could be peckish or famished. If someone’s irritated, they could be irked or seething. Happy – glad or elated. These synonyms essentially denote the same state, but evoke a very different image.
The word ‘selfish’ used by Drakeford, when removed from any context, is a loaded one. It’s all too easy for eye-grabbing headlines to be created when responding to emotionally charged words such as this.
So, what can those in the public eye do avoid having a singular word or phrase targeted and blown out of both context and proportion, whilst still genuinely engaging with their audience to ensure their message gets across? After all, one risks dissociating with one’s audience if softer, hesitant words are chosen.
In Drakeford’s case, he could have woven a narrative implying that most of the public is responsible in some small way for the spread of the coronavirus without relying on a triggering word like ‘selfish’. A simple re-wording such as: “I do not believe it is inaccurate to say that small actions pursued in personal interest but against the national guidelines – which we are all prone to in our lives – have been taken by many throughout the past months as weariness of this year has taken hold and has, ultimately, allowed the virus to spread further.”
The key here is media-trained copywriters. No matter what goal or through what medium, when looking to engage and rally your target audience to your way of thinking without risking your message being twisted, it’s vital to work with professionals who understand both linguistic techniques, the nature of today’s media and how not best marry the two. The result? A perfectly crafted line which hits home, conveys the right message and triggers the right headlines.
The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.