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Watch what you say

August 19, 2010

The art of public affairs is often the art of not saying something offensive. Like the medical profession, a key rule in working with clients or constituencies is often the “first do no harm” mantra. But social media busts apart that mantra just a bit, requiring a bit of risk-taking behavior and ability to push a company to the edge.

Even some of the most successful social media campaigns have eventually pulled back once they reanalysed their efforts and aligned them with their values (the Whopper sacrifice, where individuals were asked to give up 10 Facebook friends in exchange for a Whopper is an example). In the case of the Whopper sacrifice and other social media engagements that pushed the envelope, I argue the company did better by pressing the limits of their community and then having the honesty to admit when they’d gone to far, and adjust.

We live in a world where there are some things you seemingly can’t take back however. I hesitate to bring up the recent Dr. Laura scandal, because this is one of those cases where as a public affairs professional, I’m used to keeping my mouth shut. But as someone who was raised listening to Dr. Laura (literally – her show was blaring from our kitchen radio every afternoon), and who considers her book “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands” to be one of the best wedding prep books I received (thanks, Dad), I feel compelled to at least speak a bit to the situation.

Using the N-word has no place. Anywhere. Anytime. But that doesn’t seem to stop it from being said without abandon across popular television and radio. It is derogatory, and has a connotation that does cut deeper than the other racial slang used against nearly every other nationality, whether you’re a Mexican, Italian, Jew or blue-collar American.

But if someone says something, acknowledges it to be wrong, and then apologizes, is it really worth berating them in popular editorial columns across the country? Liberal talk show hosts have said worse things in the past and been elected to Congress.

What I’d prefer to see is a world where when mistakes happen, when words are chosen poorly, and when semantics take the place of action, we considered the situation a time to grow, evolve, and talk about issues that matter. If the “Dr. Laura scandal” was used as a chance to consider race relations, the place of the N-word in popular songs and television, and the politics of race, I’d welcome the current frenzy. I find it interesting that no one is talking about the fact that the caller who dialed into Dr. Laura’s show alluded to the fact it seemingly was only black people and “young” white people who elected our current president. I know at least two “old” white people who probably voted for him – my grandparents, lost liberal souls that they are.

We all need to more carefully consider our words. There’s a reason public affairs firms across the globe continue to do well even in these times of economic recessions (and it’s not just BP single-handedly funding them all). It’s because we live in a world where every word matters, and your next wrong statement could be a public affairs disaster. I can only hope, however, that we continue to live in a world where people take risks, speak openly and candidly, and when mistakes happen, we use them not for our own rabid political ideals, but to actually talk about issues.

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