|Thursday, 02 April 2009 09:35|
Recession is reshaping the way business talks about itself and the way people respond. Using text from two very different speeches on London 2012, Brian Thompson of Lang Communications casts a weather eye over two word clouds that reflect the changing communications climate:In February 2009, UK house prices, business confidence and output all rose. Believe that and you’re likely to find yourself in a fairly small minority. After all, we know what’s happening in the real world and it’s not pretty. And remember how the government’s business minister got it in the neck after she dared to talk about ‘green shoots’ earlier in the year?
But actually, it’s true. The Halifax’s house price survey recorded a small increase, albeit from a decidedly grim January. Similarly, the output and consumer confidence figures reflected modest rises from major lows. Journalists, if they reported these figures at all, couched them in words like ‘anomaly’, ‘blip’ and ‘take a look out of the window, stupid’.
Good news is no news
But why? These are facts: shouldn’t they speak for themselves? No, because we don’t swallow facts whole – we digest them. And any that don’t sit comfortably in the collective soup of information, observation and opinion are likely to stick in the gullet. This should cheer corporate communications professionals, whose skills are more necessary than ever. It isn’t just bad news that needs to be sensitively handled now: even good news must be treated with care. For example, a colleague of mine at Lang Communications recently had to revise a client’s annual report copy shortly before publication. The problem? In the few weeks since the text had been agreed, ‘the mood’ out there had changed. What had originally sounded robust and confident was already coming over as a little too triumphal, complacent or just out of touch.
What most corporate leaders have grasped (you know who the exceptions are) is that in 2009, a little humility doesn’t come amiss. Not only are profits and share prices under pressure, but the wider public has become increasingly critical. Fail to fit in with the zeitgeist or the expectations of the man on the Clapham bendy bus, and your company risks being disliked, disbelieved or disinvested.
Tunnel at the end of the tunnel
With the recession getting longer by the day – most pundits seem to have given up predicting when, let alone how, it will end – one thing is clear: the new reality is going to be with us for some time, and we’d better get used to it. So let’s get into practice. For this issue’s word clouds we look at the same subject through two very different lenses, and see how the bandwagon of triumph gets retuned to ride the rocky road of recession. Cast your mind back to that glorious summer day in 2005 when Lord Coe, Ken Livingstone, and lots of kids who’d been given the day off school especially, got the news they’d been waiting for. London had won the 2012 Olympic Games – a sweet moment for us at Lang, too, because we’d worked on the winning bid documentation.
Cloud 1: Lined with Olympic gold
The source here is a speech written for a high-ranking Olympic mover and shaker soon after London was announced as the host city. It’s early days. The emphasis is less on the nuts and bolts of delivering the Olympics, more on what the Olympics will deliver for London. It’s all about ‘benefits’ and ‘opportunity’ and ‘skills’.
The upbeat, visionary approach would be harder to sell in 2009, but it was absolutely right for the time. We could dream the Olympic dream and, with the economy booming, the cost was a bridge we could cross when we came to it. In fact, the words ‘cost’ and ‘money’ do not appear at any point in the speech.
Cloud 2: The perfect storm
Same subject, different world. Heady and powerful though the Olympic spirit was, it was not powerful enough to help Ken keep his crown. His successor, Boris Johnson, provides us with an interesting contrast. His mayoral speech follows a progress review by a prominent Olympic organisingcommittee member.
The choice of words reflects a new public mood. All those skills, people and employment opportunities have been downsized by more pressing concerns like ‘cost’, ‘contingency’ and ‘funding’. No premature green shoots here: the word ‘opportunity’ is as absent from this speech as the word ‘cost’ was from the first.
‘Legacy’ appears in both, but Boris places more emphasis on it. A recognition perhaps, that when the short-term outlook is bleak, the longer view is more appealing. And as the ‘masters of the universe’ have reminded us, in the end it’s not what you promise that counts; it’s what you leave behind.
Brian Thompson is a senior writer at Lang Communications, a leading agency specialising in corporate copywriting and internal communications.