Training Bulletin Issue 66
The PC-est Monkey in the Jungle
High street chain H&M recently created uproar by putting on its website pictures of two young boys modelling hoodies. The one with the slogan 'Coolest Monkey in the Jungle' was modelled by a black child and 'Mangrove Jungle Survival Expert' by a white one. At time of writing, the social media storm is still raging and we don't wish to contribute to it. However, it does make a vivid example of the tightrope any organisation has to walk when trying to avoid offending people.
The moving target
What is acceptable wording? Unfortunately, this changes as a term previously considered more acceptable than the word it replaced gradually becomes tainted. The word 'crippled' was replaced by 'handicapped', then 'disabled', then 'differently-abled'. 'Ms' was introduced as an alternative to the sexist 'Miss' and 'Mrs' but now there are people who object to it on the grounds that it is outdated and not gender-neutral. Daily Mail: Councillor loses battle. Teenagers calling someone 'special' are using it as an insult. You can offend people both by saying 'Happy Christmas' and 'Happy Holidays'.
So what's the magic answer?
Sorry, there isn't one. The Daily Mail, not entirely seriously, came up with an A-Z of PC usage which only serves to illustrate how hard it is to get things right. And even when you try to do the right thing, you risk stroppy comments from the type of person who can't think of the phrase 'political correctness' without adding 'gone mad'.
This doesn't absolve us from all responsibility though. Few people intentionally try to offend their staff, clients and customers, so there are some things you can do to avoid egregious insults.
|Instead of this||Try this|
|Each user should update his or her profile regularly||Users should update their profiles regularly|
|Mums or dads||Parents|
|Men or women||People|
|This area is a minefield…||This area is problematic or challenging…|
|Winners or losers||Participants or players|
|Right-hand man||Chief assistant|
|Mother tongue||Native tongue|
|Man the desk||Staff the desk|
Clearly, this list doesn't address every conceivable problem – even if that were possible, what is acceptable today might not be tomorrow. Other things you should consider include:
- Keeping yourself current with what is going on in your industry – has anyone else caused offence doing something similar to what you may be thinking of doing?
- Using the internet to check whether a usage is acceptable. You will get lots of different opinions, but looking at several sources will give you some idea of the majority viewpoint. For example, this informed me that the term 'people of colour' tends to be used more in America and Canada than Europe but is considered preferable to mistakenly assuming someone's ethnicity. However, not everyone likes it – it may just be the least bad option.
- Having specialists trained in marketing communications to manage your social media. These are arenas where your organisation's reputation is potentially exposed to a vast audience and damage can be done – or avoided – very quickly.
If you get it wrong…
Finally, if, despite your best intentions, some form of communication does result in accusations of racism, sexism, ageism and so on, be ready to apologise and retract the offending item. Look at the wording of the apology – this can sometimes be tactless and actually make things worse:
'We are sorry if this has offended…' implies that you don't necessarily feel people should have been offended.
'We are sorry that this has offended…' is just a change of one little word but it shows you are prepared to own the problem.
For other useful guidelines to writing that protects and enhances your company's reputation, consider our training course Effective Copywriting Skills, which focuses on the skills needed by staff who are responsible for most forms of marketing communications. Click here for details or email .