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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Public Affairs / 369: Every word matters, all the time

Every public comment from an organisation can have an impact on reputation – positive or negative. That means being careful about every single word, all the time. If not, you are playing with your reputation.

Statements and comments are issued all the time. Official comments are often pored over carefully by communications teams. On other occasions, the level of oversight or control can vary. There is always a need to have a level of authenticity in any communication. It is otherwise simply bland commercial speak and, as a result, no-one will listen. Unfortunately, that balance can sometimes be lost.

Some organisations, but more often their leaders, say outrageous things. That could be a result of a lack of advice, advice being ignored or maybe the person feeling that they know what to say and disregarding the advice. Sometimes not enough attention is paid to how an audience will react.

Just take some recent examples which show that even those who usually have a steady hand can make huge, reputationally costly, mistakes even when the initial comment is quickly followed by a desperate attempt to explain what the person really meant.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, musical impresario was booed by the audience when announcing that production of Cinderella was a ‘costly mistake’. He later issued a statement, and one from his production company, stating that he was referring to the costs incurred because of Covid etc. He was not speaking about the production itself.

James Patterson, bestselling author claimed in an interview that white male authors faced ‘racism’. He then issued an apology on social media following a backlash.

Lizzo, three-times Grammy award-winning superstar used a derogatory term in the lyrics to a new song. She swiftly issued a personal statement and changed the lyric.

Heather Wheeler, Government Minister suggested that Birmingham and Blackpool were ‘godawful’. Her apology for the offence caused, not the comment itself, was, she said, not reflective of her actual view. Although it is not clear what her actual view is of Birmingham or Blackpool.

These examples all show what can happen and how hostile momentum can build. In all these cases you can see there was an attempt at a U-turn, but some were more successful than others. The only one to emerge from their trouble with any degree of credibility was Lizzo. Why? In the main because she was able to highlight a number of related causes she had championed, so this problem was out of character for her. But crucially her apology was swift and accompanied by action.

In the other cases mentioned, the individuals were less successful at repairing the reputational damage they had caused. Lloyd Webber has made forceful comments before; Patterson took two days to apologise and mentioned his support for a diversity of voices without evidence; and, Wheeler tapped into distrust of government ministers and a feeling that levelling up is nothing more than a political slogan.

So, what does this tell us about making public comments?

  1. think about how your audience sees the comment, not how you interpret it. Challenge yourselves first;
  2. being genuine and authentic is not the same as causing outcry;
  3. you are always on duty. ‘Danger’ lurks in every public utterance;
  4. build your reputation in advance of problems, it will help if things do go wrong;
  5. any apology will be critiqued. If you want to be genuine and authentic then the apology is the place where that should always happen.

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