by | Nov 5, 2020

Tribe once had a wise client whose catchphrase was ‘words are important.’ Words are important. And they can be fairly dangerous, too. What’s considered acceptable in our language and actions continues to evolve. If we don’t pay careful attention to these changes, your executives and your company could unwittingly fall victim to costly errors.

If you grew up in my era, it’s very likely that you’re just learning what works and what doesn’t. And it takes real concerted effort to turn diligence into muscle memory. So as we’re walking down the path of becoming more thoughtful about the words we use – and how to be more engaging and inclusive with our language and actions – be careful.

Every week in the 80s, at the end of morning roll call, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus told the officers on Hill Street Blues “Let’s be careful out there.” He was generally reminding the officers not to get shot. But this is about not shooting yourself in the foot.

Speaking of the 80s, I grew up in the advertising world in the 80s and 90s. One of the hottest and fastest growing agencies was The Richards Group. And we all knew of their founder, Stan Richards – a genuinely well-regarded pillar of the industry for decades. A couple of weeks ago, Richards infamously made the news for a couple of unfortunate comments.

An interesting part the story is that he made those incendiary comments on an internal call at the agency. Richards may or may not have understood the severity of the six words that landed him in hot water. But he was theoretically in the safety zone of an internal meeting, so perhaps his guard was down.

Unfortunately for Stan Richards and his agency, the comment made its way off the Zoom call and out to the agency’s clients. Over the next week or so, the agency wound up losing long-standing relationships with clients like Motel 6, The Home Depot and several others – likely representing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Advertising is a very Darwinian industry that’s had its share of struggles recently – particularly throughout the pandemic. Jobs are lost when accounts go away. Stan Richards’ misguided words cost him a job at his own agency (he resigned last week). But it’s also going to cost dozens and perhaps hundreds of other agency jobs. Real consequences.

In the 80s and 90s, in offices, in hallways and over drinks at lunch, we said things on a daily basis that would (and should) get us all fired nowadays. We hadn’t yet learned that our words and actions were not thoughtful and not inclusive. But back then, the world didn’t have the internet and social media and all of today’s tools that can exact almost instantaneous justice for corporate and personal misdeeds.

It’s important that we not lose focus on the lessons that we see playing out in today’s news. Around the house, our kids regularly school us regarding the things we say and how they could be interpreted. And we’ve learned to listen very carefully.

Need help finding the right tone in your communications? Tribe can help.

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