Don’t parrot… A short guide to avoiding common communication pitfalls

This article by Ralph Underhill, PIRC Associate and Director of Framing Matters was published by the Public Interest Research Center:

President Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook”.

With those 5 words, he managed to reinforce the idea, in the minds of millions of Americans, that he was, in fact, a crook. What he should have said is “I am an honest man”. When he used the word ‘crook’, he was parroting the language of his opponents, and simply reinforcing that negative association in people’s minds.

This is the first communications trap, which I call the…

Parrot, or the refutation trap.

So instead of environmental groups saying “wind turbines are not noisy eye sores”, they should be saying “the majority of people support renewables”. As George Lakoff has long argued, getting involved in denying things just gets you caught up in language that ends up associating your cause with unhelpful ideas. Here is a classic example of the parrot:

David Davis: “Brexit Britain will not be a ‘Mad Max’ dystopian world.”

Fig 1: The UK in 2020.

The point is, when we use words together – like ‘Brexit’ and ‘Mad Max’ – we are making associations in people’s minds and these can be unhelpful.

The second communications trap is the:

Chameleon, or the sanitising trap.

The chameleon (they are so awesome) is when we use jargon or euphemisms that make something we see as bad seem less terrible.

For example, why would a group campaigning on international issues ever use a term like ‘collateral damage’? It is a term created by the US military in order to make killing civilians sound more acceptable. ‘Collateral damage’ is a classic sanitising frame. Let’s call it ‘killing civilians’, because that is what it is. Likewise, ‘outsourcing’ or ‘down-sizing’ are other examples: they usually just mean ‘firing people’.

Fig 2: The original title ‘Killing Civilians’ didn’t play well with audiences.

The third communications trap is the…

Shark, or contaminated language trap.

While people didn’t go around hugging great white sharks before the 1970s, their image was certainly not as tainted by violence as it is now. The film ‘Jaws’ created huge negative associations with these majestic creatures, forever painting them in the public mind as man-eaters.

Fig 3: Woman saved from shark attack by giant lettering.

All words conjure up beliefs and associations in people and when we use terms with too many negative associations we can damage our cause. The shark trap comes in two forms, the contested term and the contaminated term.

A contested term might be something like ‘refugee’ which the right wing press have spent a long time trying to create negative associations with, but still resonates with many as people fleeing persecution. With a contested frame, we can still use it, and we might even be able to reclaim it, but we must tread carefully in order not to reinforce associations that are unhelpful. A contaminated term is one that we should avoid using at all costs, as we can no longer win it back. This might be something like “Make America Great Again”, where the negative associations are so strongly negative that the term cannot be repurposed for a different use.

The final communications trap is the…

Robin, or rose-tinted trap.

Robins are famous for looking cute, you will see them on Christmas cards looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But this is a lie, they are the Begbies of the animal world! If you have ever had two of them near you when picnicking you will know what I mean.

Fig 4: Begbie, exactly as he appeared in the original Trainspotting.

In communications terms, sometimes we seek to criticise something but the term used to describe it has overwhelming positive associations – like a robin. This means that when we use the term people see it as something positive that we are criticising. Let me explain. ‘Jobs’ are nearly always seen as a good thing: “you are lucky to have a job”, “this development will create jobs”. Talking about good and bad jobs just brings in the positive associations of having a job, because people don’t readily think of jobs as being bad. Instead, we must look at bringing up the issue another way, in terms of workers rights or working conditions, and sometimes that might mean avoiding the term ‘jobs’ itself.

A summary of the animal traps in poster form can also be found here.