Language is the most important tool in the PR practitioner’s arsenal, and can ultimately make or break a successful campaign or reputation.
Language doesn’t just entail a choice of words, however. The visual codes and conventions of images all tell a story and send off messages, so you have to make doubly sure that you are sending all the right ones. The subtle signals and meaning that can be found in the smallest Tweet, well edited biography, or a seemingly innocuous Instagram picture can have lasting implications. This has been seen last week as writer and actor Lena Dunham has had to defend herself and her reputation on social media against a damaging interpretation of a passage from her new book.
If what can be read can be misconstrued by your fans/clients/customers, then just imagine the damage that can be caused by the message being misconstrued by your competitors. This is where Dunham has found herself in hot water. As a prominent liberal activist, any mixed messages that could be interpreted from her language have been jumped on by her opposition in order to discredit her. The Independent reported on Wednesday that Dunham’s main antagonist stated, “Lena Dunham may not like our interpretation of her book, but unfortunately for her and her attorneys, she wrote that book.”
There are, of course, elements of language that we keep an eye on to make sure the messages that are being read are unmistakable and a positive representation of intended meaning. Here are 4 elements to look for in language in order to fool proof your message and make it just right:
Denotation: The Dictionary sense of the word. If in doubt, double check that the word you have used is indeed the correct usage. For example, inflammable is often taken to mean ‘un-burnable’, when it means the exact opposite. This could, obviously, be a very costly error in communication.
But beware, there can be a pitfall to even straight forward dictionary terms…
Ambiguity: The same word can mean different things, so make your intended meaning obvious and clear with details of the context of what you are communicating. Elaborate on your statement if needed, just so there are definitely no crossed wires.
Connotation: This refers to the signs that create images, or associations in the mind of your reader. This can be a very useful tool for sending a more in-depth message with fewer words by using metaphors. A red rose, for example, can symbolise love.
But beware of …
Polysemy: When literally translated from Greek, this term means many signs. Readers can take different meanings from the same messages. As in the Lena Dunham example, you may want to use words or images to present one sentiment, yet others may develop a different interpretation of your message due to social contexts or their own personal experiences. The red rose that you intended to symbolise love could also symbolise the Labour Party, the England rugby team, or the pre-Tudor House of Lancaster!
Keeping all these elements in mind is the key to great communications in this age of quick and instant messaging. We are here to help clients, from big businesses to sole traders, send the message that they intend, to promote their image in the best way to all readers.