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Use the power of positive language in your public communication

01 Jun, 2020 Media relations

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

The disciplined use of positive language brings you benefits in all types of media interviews, public meetings and confrontations with pressure groups.

Contrary to popular belief and much PR mythology, negative articles and headlines are generally driven by the negative language and examples that spokespersons use. Even the best interview often results in a story with a negative slant simply because a single negative phrase was used. Reporters and others habitually phrase their questions and information requests in negative ways that demand negative responses.

Use positive language

Positive language will enable you to control or frame your communication. Using positive, declarative language and power words will overcome negative and ‘toxic’ language.

Look what happens with negative imagery: on 17 November 1973, Richard Nixon famously declared to an Associated Press managing editors conference in Orlando, Florida, that “people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”

Framing

By repeating the negative language, Nixon created the negative frame of being a crook – his words immediately made everyone think of him as a crook. How something is presented (the ‘frame’) influences people’s attitudes and opinions. Framing is a form of agenda-setting – the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a public issue.

When Basil Fawlty in the English television comedy series ‘Fawlty Towers’ instructed his staff, “Don’t mention the war,” when they spoke to German guests at his hotel, he was the main offender, hilariously. Another case of framing.

In the same way, when people are interviewed in the media, many fall into the trap of using denials that repeat the original allegation, thus reinforcing a frame and perpetuating the claim against them. For example, when the chief executive says, “My company didn’t poison the soil at the mining site,” he is only reinforcing the strength of the accusation in people’s minds. If he is preparing for such an interview, when this type of question is predictable, he should prepare a response in positive language similar to these lines: “My company has a 100% record in maintaining the highest environmental standards at that mining site.”

Mental Models Theory

This also has connotations of the Mental Models Theory, which basically demonstrates that people need to fill in a gap if a story or explanation has been refuted. If they are not provided with a satisfactory alternative piece of information, they will retain the inaccurate piece in their mind rather than having no explanation at all.

Examples of positive declarations being more effective

When confronted with a negative accusation or statement the response should be made only in positive, declarative language. Some examples of positive declarations that have been converted out of negative words are:

Negative response: “No, the project won’t run at a loss.”
Positive response: “The project is still scheduled to run on time and on budget.”

Negative response: “It won’t have a detrimental impact on the environment…”
Positive response: “The environmental impact will be minimal [zero?].”

Negative response: “That’s wrong. We didn’t pay less than the amount claimed.”
Positive response: “If you check the facts, you’ll find we paid the full amount.”

Negative response: “We didn’t do that”
Positive response: “Here’s what we actually did.”

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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