Our nation has not been without a crisis for some time. In local communities, there are crises nearly every day. In families and relationships there are unfortunate, tragic events, unnecessary deaths, injuries and accidents.
My purpose in writing is not to minimize any of these; each takes a difficult and deep toll on many of us.
As a public relations practitioner for whom a great deal of practice focuses on crisis communications and response, it is hard to watch responses to these tragedies without becoming somewhat of an armchair quarterback, though. I’ve begun to cringe when I read the inevitable “Our thoughts and prayers are with…”
To be clear: The statement's veracity in the vast majority of cases is without question. Indeed, elected officials, business leaders, influencers and yes, even our own family and friends posting on social media, use the expression regularly.
My fear is larger—at a minimum, I believe readers, listeners and viewers are beginning to become tone-deaf when this phrase is used. Worse, they may roll their eyes and consider it just another version of PR spin. But at some point, the words intended to be authentic by companies, politicians, family and friends may even go so far as to create a negative reaction. With the words’ repetition, the person on the receiving end of the phrase may become tired of hearing it, to the point that it becomes meaningless.
While I winced every time I read or heard someone say it following the terrible events in Charlottesville, my thoughts-and-prayers-o’meter had rocketed into the hundreds. As I wrote above, it is doubtless these brands and people were being genuine. And without question it was an appropriate thing for them to be saying, but how many who were listening automatically tuned it out?
There's more than public relations at work here. As early as 1907, the American Journal of Psychology documented this phenomenon. Then, in 1962, Dr. Leon James, in his doctoral dissertation at McGill University, coined the term “semantic satiation.” As you can read in this linked essay, Dr. James, in the course of several experiments, identified this occurrence, when with every repetition words reduced the intensity of feeling, in fact dulling how we view them.
If it is not already there, I believe that the overuse of the "thoughts and prayers" phrase soon will lead to semantic satiation with audiences, especially in a society where compassion is frequently on autopilot. Brands, CEOs and politicians committed to engaging in hard situations are at risk of their stakeholders tuning out. These actors could even lose credibility by using words that are perceived to be without feeling.
So what are truly caring individuals, companies and organizations, as well as those PR practitioners who counsel them and write their remarks, to do to adequately express sympathy at difficult times?
The challenge will be great to find a unique voice so that the pat response of “our thoughts and prayers are with…” does not become the default. Here are a few suggestions:
- Consider your brand – use words that sound like those your stakeholders would expect
- Evaluate the magnitude of the event – and use words that are proportional in response
- Create a new narrative – work to actively change the conversation you have with your audience at times of tragedy by introducing updated language
- Be real – communicate authentically, honestly and transparently