What may be a sincere wish has become PR rhetoric with overuse—find a new way to express empathy.
Our nation has not been without a crisis for some time. In local communities, there are crises nearly every day. And in families, relationships, there are unfortunate, tragic events; unnecessary deaths; injuries; and accidents. Most recently, the Parkland, Florida, school shootings have been front and center in the ongoing dialogue.
The purpose of this column is not to minimize any of these—from a large-scale international terrorist event to school violence on our own soil; or from a police-involved shooting to a patient losing a battle with cancer—each takes a difficult and deep toll on those it affects. The situation in Florida has been particularly awful and heart-wrenching for most of us.
As a public relations practitioner for whom a great deal of practice focuses on crisis communications and response, it is hard to watch responses to these tragedies without becoming somewhat of an armchair quarterback. I’ve begun to cringe when I start reading the inevitable “our thoughts and prayers are with…”
To be clear: I don’t doubt the veracity of the statements themselves; in the vast majority of cases, they are made with good intentions. Indeed, it is used by elected officials, business leaders, influencers, community leaders, and yes, even our own family and friends posting on social media platforms responding to bad news from their followers.
My fear is larger—at a minimum, I believe readers/listeners/viewers are beginning to become tone-deaf when this phrase is used. Worse, they may just roll their eyes and consider it just another version of “PR spin.” But at some point, the words intended to be authentic by leaders, companies, politicians, family and friends may even go so far as to create a negative reaction in audiences. By the words’ own repetition, the person on the receiving end of the phrase may in fact literally become “tired” of hearing it, to the point that it becomes meaningless.
I have winced every time I read or heard someone say it following the terrible events in Florida, and as these students and educators continue to share their grief in the most public of ways. Indeed, my gauge for hearing thoughts and prayers in the days following had rocketed into the hundreds. I do not doubt they were as genuine as they could be in most cases. And it without question was an appropriate thing for them to be saying, but how many who were listening automatically tuned it out?
I learned through research that more than my communications and crisis expertise may be to blame. As early as 1907, the American Journal of Psychology documented this phenomenon. Then, in 1962, Dr. Leon James, in his doctoral dissertation at McGill University in Montreal, coined the term “semantic satiation.” As shared in this MentalFloss article, Dr. James in the course of several experiments identified this occurrence, when with every repetition, words reduced the intensity of feeling, in fact dulling how we view them.
If it is not already there, I believe that the overuse of the thoughts and prayers phrase will soon lead to semantic satiation with audiences, especially in a society where compassion is frequently on autopilot. Companies with reputational goodwill and a commitment to engagement in hard situations are at risk of their stakeholders tuning out, or even at risk of losing credibility by using words that are perceived to be without feeling.
So what are truly caring individuals, companies and organizations to do to adequately express their sympathies at difficult times? The challenge will be great to find a unique voice so that the pat response of “our thoughts and prayers are with…” does not become the default.
Consider using words that sound like your organization—and those that your audience would expect to hear from you. Use words that are proportional to the magnitude of the event itself. Don’t hesitate to change the narrative; use updated language at times of tragedy that is authentic, honest and heartfelt.
Above all, make it clear that the words come from a place of caring and concern, and not from a pre-set playbook of responses. The most genuine messages start that way.
[Portions originally published in PR News, August 2017)
Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group, a strategic public relations firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. She is a recognized advisor to national corporations and organizations in crisis preparedness and management. She can be reached at 614.537.8926 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.