Choosing Positive Language for Pandemic Communications

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.
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It is hard to believe that we have been living through the coronavirus pandemic since the early days of 2020. For many, these past few months feel more like a decade. Some of that weariness and strain is starting to show in the language that people and companies are using.

As communicators, though, we know that meaning is conveyed not just in what you say, but in how you say it. The same situation, event or idea can be perceived differently by your audience depending upon the way the message is conveyed; words and phrases can convey positivity or negativity, and sometimes all it takes is a different vocabulary choice to achieve a different tone.

Still, deliberately choosing positive language to communicate during a pandemic can take energy and awareness. So we reached out to members of the Legal Marketing Association and the Public Relations Society of America Counselors Academy to solicit input on language choices for communications today.

We also tossed out an informal survey on social media for examples of words and phrases that most of us are tired of hearing. While some of these words and phrases may have been well received early on in the pandemic, now it’s a different story.

Many people wish the following words and phrases could be stricken from our current lexicon:

  • Constraints
  • Difficult times
  • Herd immunity (noting we are not wild animals)
  • High risk individuals
  • Isolation
  • Locked down
  • New normal
  • Now more than ever
  • Person under investigation
  • Presumptive positive
  • The unwell
  • Quarantine
  • Uncertain times
  • Unprecedented times

The dislike of “unprecedented times” is widespread. But these days and events really are unprecedented, so what’s a communicator to do? To help find other word choices, MarketingProfs published 30 Creative Alternatives to Unprecedented. We didn’t see this phrase on the list, but Gina would add “Steven King-like” as an effective adjective phrase to describe the past few months.

Ken Jacobs, ACC, CPC, principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching was a guest on the podcast On Record PR. After discussing how to be an amazingly effective leader, he noted that he doesn’t “call these times ‘challenging,’ because that creates a vision that has some negativity built in.” Instead, Jacobs thinks “in terms of ‘unchartered waters.’” He believes that phrase helps us shift quickly into opportunity mode and encourages us to find clarity and spur action.

Many consumers also share a distain for companies that say “we’re all in this together” in their marketing and other communications. Gina admits that she is guilty of that one herself. She does believe that we’re in this together. But since she recognizes that not everyone feels the same way, she has shifted to saying, “Together, we will get through this.”

Positive Language Alternatives for Pandemic Communications

Words matter.

Every successful communicator knows that, of course, but science is showing us that word choice matters even more than we may have thought.

In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman describe how a single positive or negative word has the power to change the brain’s chemistry. Newberg is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, while Waldman served as faculty at Loyola Marymount University, and taught executive communication.

Their research drew upon brain scans and data collected from workshops given to MBA students at Loyola Marymount University as well as clinical data from couples in therapy and from organizations that help caregivers cope with patient suffering. From this data, Newberg and Waldman developed an approach they call Compassionate Communication.

They conclude that positive words can actually strengthen our brain’s frontal lobe, promoting cognitive functioning, building resiliency, and leading to better decision-making. Negative words, conversely, increase activity in the fear-center of the brain, releasing stress-producing hormones and interrupting our brain’s higher functioning. “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes,” they write.

Read: Words Can Change Your Brain

Newberg and Waldman’s tactics for communicating are even more relevant today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If using positive language can boost brain function during ordinary times, imagine how powerful word choice can be during these “Stephen King-like” days. Using positive words improves mood and also helps us lead our teams by example while not feeding into the negativity of the times.

Read: How Changing the Way We Talk About COVID-19 Can Improve Our Mental Well-Being

With that in mind, here are words and phrases that have been used often throughout the pandemic, along with considerations and recommendations for alternatives, if warranted.

Essential vs. Nonessential

Sarah Ryan, the director of marketing and business development at Stark & Stark said, “Be cautious of the ‘Essential Staff’ language. Everyone is essential.”

The same holds true for the language we use to describe essential or nonessential businesses. In both cases, the preferred language needs to be used and modeled by a company’s highest leadership.

Ryan noted that this experience “has taught us the importance of frequent feedback and communication from leadership. We have seen our law firm come together like never before to support each other in many ways. It is possible because of the transparency and support coming from the top.”

Stuck at Home vs. Stay at Home

The word “stuck” conjures images of confinement, or of being stranded, baffled or confused. On the other hand, the word “stay” elicits images of remaining in place or continuing in a certain situation. “Stuck” connotes being powerless, while “stay” connotes choice.

Instead of saying, “I am stuck at home,” we can reframe the situation by saying, “I am staying safe at home.” To be “safe” evokes images of being free from danger and secure from unnecessary risk – and that’s pretty much the goal of the stay-at-home orders put in place to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

New Normal vs. Next Normal

One public relations industry colleague, Melanie Wilt, chief experience officer of Shift-ology Communication, advises staff and clients to, “avoid the phrase ‘the new normal’” for familiar terms that actually feel normal, such as “routine.”

President and director of public relations for Strategic Communications, LLC, Crystal DeStefano, APR, agreed saying, “We don’t believe this is the new normal. There definitely will be a new normal, but that’s months (or more than a year) away. What we’re experiencing is temporary, so we refer to this time based on the current stage (e.g. ‘during stay at home’ or ‘during phase 1’ or ‘during re-opening’).”

John E. Walker, founder and managing partner at Chirp, said, “We counsel clients to stop referencing the ‘new normal’ and start embracing the ‘next normal.’ As the world and society evolves, so does business and we should consider the next pandemic phase to be the next normal.”

Social Distancing vs. Physical Distancing

The idea of “social distancing” has bothered Gina since the first time she heard it used in relation to minimizing the risks of getting coronavirus for one’s self and others. She is a social creature who loves socializing, hugging family and friends, spending time at conferences, festivals, and concerts, and simply spending time in the company of others. To “socially distance” herself felt like emotional isolation, a punishment, and loneliness.

Instead, we think of it as “physical distancing,” which is really what we are doing. We are staying apart physically while using technologies such as Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Teams and other platforms to be connected virtually.

A good article on this topic is Social vs. Physical Distancing: Why it Matters, in Psychology Today. Author Amy Banks says, “Differentiating physical distance from social distance acknowledges the virus’s malignant ability to be transmitted from person to person but also acknowledges that the virus has no power over our ability to support and nurture one another in this time of extraordinary threat.”

Banks goes on to say, “By naming the national strategy as physical distancing rather than social distancing and emphasizing the need for human connection, we can stay safe from the virus but also hold onto the heightened need we all have for one another right now.” If only Banks were the one framing the language used by state, federal and health care leaders, things might feel quite different.

Tip: Don’t forget to make the best use of your physical distancing time. You can make physical distancing time productive for your business and evaluate your online reputation and reviews while physically distancing.

Stay Positive vs. Optimistic

Crystal DeStefano’s team at Strategic Communications has been very careful not to say “stay positive” because the word “positive” can be used to identify people who have been diagnosed with an infection, including COVID-19.

In addition, Kate Snyder, APR, principal strategist and owner of Michigan-based PR agency Piper & Gold said, “Instead of talking about the ‘opportunities’ the pandemic presents, we talk about positive outcomes from a negative situation. We’ve also worked to be careful not to misuse any medical- or health-related language. A ‘healthy’ profit or using the words dying or dead casually (I.e., I’m dying for takeout right now) are intentionally being avoided and pointed out when someone uses such a phrase to help with awareness.”

Return to Work vs. Return to the Office

Saying “return to work” may feel more natural than “returning to the office,” but there are valid reasons to avoid saying “return to work.” For the fortunate ones amongst us, we have not stopped working. In fact, many of us are working more than ever, but we are doing it from work-from-home (WFH) environments instead of the traditional office building.

The Bucks County Bar Association, for example, recently communicated to its members its plans to “resume in-building operations,” noting that the organization’s staff had continued to serve members through remote CLEs, Lawyer Referral Service operations, and by enabling rapid communications from the court to members.  The leaders of the association’s sections, committees, and divisions were able to continue their meetings during the pandemic by modifying service delivery and creatively developing new ideas to help members however possible.

To decide how to communicate about your own organization’s return plan, think about the type of business you have and use appropriate language instead of “return to work.”

For example, you could say you are:

  • Returning to the law office, accounting office, dentist’s office, etc.
  • Allowing employees to choose whether they want to come back to the office.
  • Opening the association’s offices.
  • Returning to our physical establishment.
  • Resuming in-building operations.
  • Permitting outdoor seating with physical distancing at our restaurant.

Where to Find Inspiration as the Pandemic Continues

As we listen to the news and read content online each day, we find many resources for talking about difficult subjects in a way that does not invoke fear, panic or anxiety. Kevin O’Keefe, CEO and founder of LexBlog, Inc., said he finds inspiration in watching New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo each day. “I even pull language and themes from transcribed copy of his daily updates,” O’Keefe said.

Gov. Cuomo named his state’s re-opening plan “New York Forward,” and published the NY Forward Guide to Reopening New York and Building Back Better. In it, he says, “…during one of the darkest, hardest moments of our history, I’ve also seen New York at her best. … New Yorkers have proven what they are capable of. They have proven themselves to be New York Tough – and tough enough to be smart, united, disciplined, and loving. By harnessing that same effort and courage, our state can emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.”

While neither of us live in New York, we both say, “Thank you Governor Cuomo. You inspire us too.”

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