Media Minute: Good advice, badly delivered
By Jerry Brown, APR
I think it’s safe to say things aren’t going well when you feel compelled to tell employees not to use words or phrases like “deathtrap,” “widowmaker” and “rolling sarcophagus” to describe your products.
I’m referring, of course, to the General Motors memo with a list of 68 words and phrases GM employees documenting potential safety issues were told to not to use.
The GM employees were told to avoid the word “defect” because it could be seen as an admission of guilt. Other words on the list included “bad,” “terrifying,” “dangerous,” “horrific” and “Hindenburg.” The phrase “Corvair-like” was on the banned list, along with “unbelievable engineering screw-up” and “this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Written in 2008, the list of banned words predates the dustup over the ignition-switch recalls that have killed at least 13 people and inflicted repeated hits to GM’s reputation over the past several months.
But it surfaced in the news media just a few weeks ago, unfortunate timing for the folks at GM because it served as an opportunity for another round of stories on the ignition-switch recalls and how poorly GM has handled them. I suspect I wasn’t alone in missing the fact when I first heard about it that the memo was six years old and not written in response to the current situation.
The admonition to stick to the facts and avoid offering opinions when describing potential safety issues was good advice, I believe.
But it was badly executed. The list of banned words and phrases was too specific, too long and ultimately caused the kind of harm it was designed to prevent.
I’ve often advised clients to avoid putting certain information in writing so their words won’t come back to haunt them in the media or a lawsuit. But I don’t put that advice in writing, either.
Anything you distribute to a large group of people — and sometimes a small group of people — is going to be shared with others, potentially including your enemies, your competitors and the media. That doesn’t mean you never share sensitive information in writing. But say it carefully. And use caution when deciding how widely to share it. Distributing a memo with a list of “banned” words to a large group of employees has a good chance of being leaked to the media.
Offer your employees guidance. But try to do it in a way that does no harm.
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