The rise of “corporate speak” is a failure of the PR profession


SenateSHJ’s founding Chairman Peter Hehir asks what’s happened to speaking clearly and with meaning

It’s probably just me. The passing of the years, a pedantic leaning, maybe even the age-related disease called “it was better in my time”.

I am struck by the growing vapidity of corporate speak, where no cliché is left unturned, no re-churn of woke messages is resisted and no interest is shown in what the reader is expected to understand.

My concern is not about corporations themselves. It is those whose business should be clarity and transparency. That is, communications and PR people who should act as an antidote to guff.

The current climate presents a huge opportunity to return to our roots – to tell clients how to speak clearly and with meaning to their many audiences. The recent death of Harold Burson, the founder of the world’s first successful PR group, Burson Marsteller, could be an opportunity for the industry to have a good look at itself. He had high standards which he maintained all his working life, expecting the same of his people. But have his successors?

It may be too late to turn things around: any change requires people who recognise a problem. A scan of the way many business leaders talk, especially through their web sites, suggest that they are the problem.  

Once, PR and communication consultancy was mainly about media, and therefore employed many ex-journalists. True, journalists can make poor PR practitioners, and the routine way in which former top journalists become communication directors of political leaders should concern the industry, which has not protested that these poachers rarely make good gamekeepers.

But consultancies that employed people with excellent journalistic skills in senior roles, who also learned about client service, client mentality, business management and all the other skills required at the top end of our profession, were well placed to give confident, strong advice to board room clients. 

So often, especially in a crisis, it was the ability of the company under fire to speak plainly, truthfully and rapidly that saved the day - and being able to do this is still the mantra of crisis specialists.

But how many top people in our industry today either demonstrate this skill or encourage it at the top of their companies? I suspect too few.

Naming a few names won’t help make this argument. Far better to read the web sites of the PR or communication companies you have heard of while also looking to find clarity, distinctiveness, persuasion, and knowledge.

For years studies have shown that the top two reasons clients choose a consultancy are “they seem to understand my business“ and “I would like to work with this person and their company”.   

These winners are the ones who convince, whose research shows how they can make serious improvements to companies’ business and who can provide better communication policies and practices.