Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Word Choices Matter

Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” Unfortunately, Mr. Twain’s words apparently did not make it to the eyes or ears of Carl-Henric Svanberg, the current Chairman of BP. On June 16th, Mr. Svanberg upset residents of the Gulf Coast when he told reporters, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care, but that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people.”

Granted, Mr. Svanberg’s first language is not English, so criticism of his “small people” comment might be unwarranted, but nevertheless, what is important for Mr. Svanberg and all corporate executives to understand, is that word choices matter. In fact, a recent study published in Health Communication, a scientific journal on healthcare communications, shows how the use of subtle word choices can influence and persuade the behavior of an individual without changing the meaning of the message.

If BP wants to survive the backlash of their numerous PR gaffes, they need to start becoming more sensitive with the choice of words they use to convey their messages. With their stock prices down nearly 50% in the last two months, they better hope it is not too late.

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