Why and how to replace musty PR jargon with clear, precise language

Fluff, puffery and linguistic sleight of hand could be undermining your credibility—and harming your career. Watch for these weasel words and phrases that could come back to bite you.

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Why and how to replace musty PR jargon with clear, precise language

Fluff, puffery and linguistic sleight of hand could be undermining your credibility—and harming your career. Watch for these weasel words and phrases that could come back to bite you.

As language evolves, grotesque creatures can take shape.

We have PR, marketing and advertising to thank for many euphemisms that have become ubiquitous.

A few examples:

  • Used cars apparently no longer exist. Now we have “pre-owned cars” or “certified pre-owned cars.” Of course, a used car is a used car, “certified” or not.

  • It’s impossible to buy a balcony ticket in a Broadway theater—not because the show has sold out—but because “balcony” is now called the “upper mezzanine.”

  • Want to speak to your stockbroker? Ask for your “financial advisor” instead.

  • Political cable TV programs use the term “expert analyst” to describe pundits who give their opinions, even though their opinions are often decidedly un-expert.

It’s better to speak plainly.

PR deserves a dictionary of its own. Some terms and phrases used in our business might seem harmless, but even small misunderstandings (or linguistic sleights of hand) can ruin trust and erode credibility.

Especially in the situations listed below, beware of using duplicitous or misleading PR language:

  • You’re trying to make a bad client situation look better than it really is.

  • You’re stretching the truth to make a new product seem “innovative” or “game-changing” when it’s only a minor improvement or updated packaging.

  • You’re blaming a reporter who has quoted a client correctly. “Misquoted” or “misunderstood” or “took it out of context” are the usual excuses.

Of course, loose language and imprecise terminology can get a communicator into trouble in many ways. Weasel words are ubiquitous in press releases and in responses to reporters’ questions. Words and phrases such as “perhaps,” “believed to be,” “possibly,” and “our research shows” demonstrate a lack of provable facts.

Other puffery such as “best in class,” “award-winning,” “unique” or “cutting-edge” should also raise a red flag. Is the product or service you’re touting really “No.1”? By which metric? According to whom? Be careful what you claim, as it could come back to bite you.

Amid a PR crisis, it’s understandable to use “PR talk” to circumvent tough questions, but responding with fluff might make things worse.

Avoid tired tropes such as:

  • “Safety is our highest priority.”

  • “Our employees are like family.”

  • “Our attorneys have investigated the matter and found no problem.”

All these replies are non-answers and are certain to irritate reporters. Using PR jargon answers can sometimes backfire, as reporters might sense a coverup and start digging deeper into the matter. A straightforward answer often prevents additional negative reporting.

Using PR talk might seem safe, but it can do the following:

  • Create mistrust

  • Damage relationships with journalists

  • Tarnish your credibility

Does that seem worth it? Avoid boilerplate gibberish, and banish business jargon from your vocabulary. Speak—and write—directly, clearly and with precision.

A version of this post first ran on the Glean.info blog.