Zsófia Lakatos: The Real Power of Words – How to Communicate Amidst Frustration
Article by Zsófia Lakatos, Owner of Emerald PR, an affiliate of Burson Cohn&Wolfe (Hungary).
When I was a teenager, I wrote poems in Hungarian and English. For one reason, this one often echoes in my head nowadays: Words of happiness / that sparkle in the sky / Of grief and pain and sorrow / Hiding in the dark / Lonely words of justice / And rules that control you / Little things we use / 'Cause words don't hurt you / People do.
Maybe these lines spin in my mind repeatedly because the pandemic era we live in really shows how much responsibility we, as communication professionals, have. I deeply believe that it is the greatest power - and a terrible responsibility that comes with it – to be able to influence people’s thoughts.
Even in peacetime, under business as usual, we need to be very aware that the words we use will affect people. Because we crawl into their heads and influence, maybe manipulate them. We have an impact on their thoughts and an impact on their behavior.
In normal circumstances, we, professional communicators can assess the expected outcome of our activities. We know which topics will top the news, create tension, or stay with us as memes. We can assess when and how to feed information to keep a topic in the public mind and what needs to be done to make a story look as insignificant as possible.
But now we are in war. The current pandemic situation triggers the same reaction as when we are on a battlefield being fired at. When being under attack, we try to flee or hide and if there is no escape, squat, and blink behind our backs in dread. When cornered, we give up or attack, depending on temper.
Psychologists have already analyzed and will analyze people’s behavior since March 2020, but in fact anyone can perceive the public mood if they spend half an hour on social media. What I see is that many behave as we were in war. There are those who flee, those who hide and there are those who fight for survival.
When we were first forced into lockdown a year ago, it all still had a discreet charm. We took up new courses, learned home-office and home-school, spent more time with loved ones, baked bread, went to online pubs, sewed masks. Overall, we supported each other and laughed at our misery. For those who were not financially affected by the crisis, it was a bit like a summer camp.
In 2021, the situation is completely different. A quarantined Spring again with far more casualties and a different state of mind. People are in pain, demotivated and frustrated, the humor and support of last year is gone.
And in terms of communication, we have become terribly aggressive. Like a cornered animal, a frustrated person attacks, bites into everything and everyone to feel in control of their own lives for at least a few minutes. With consciousness and attention utterly narrowed, tolerance gone, and the control of emotions completely slipped out of their hands, they will jump on bits of information and tear it apart. In this situation, the responsibility of communication professionals is bigger than ever. So big that if we really understood how much of a burden we have, we might not be able to bear it.
This increased sensitivity in the world we operate in means that the same sentence that was safe 3-4 years ago can now arouse immeasurable tempers in people. For example, to use expressions like “open up to the world,” “breath the freshness of Spring,” “closer together,” “get inside,” “embrace the world,” “take a big breath,” “it won’t hurt” during a lockdown will backfire.
We should not encourage people to have fun in the sun, get on a plane to see relatives or hug their friends. We cannot promise that it will be better, that this virus will be gone for good. We even must be careful with clearly positive topics - like, say, tomato growing - because you never know if the lack of a vegetable garden will be the last straw for a person trapped between four walls, desperate to the extreme. We should not launch a campaign on the importance of cancer screening, we can’t remind people to go to their GP for an examination, we can’t even strongly encourage them to exercise more or go to a beautician.
What can be done in this situation? The truth is it is best not to do anything.
There are circumstances in which you cannot win. Whatever you do, it is so risky, so unpredictable, you are better off staying put. For communications this means, stay quiet and wait for the right time. Because right now, any positive message, any brilliant campaign can bleed to death, and a crisis can develop in the blink of an eye. Therefore, I suggest to all communication professionals that we postpone what we can.
We must wait for the frustration to decrease. When people no longer jump to each other’s throats within 2 minutes on any topic in Facebook groups, you can start communicating very carefully.
And what should we do while we are doomed to silence? Spend more time on internal communication! There has never been a greater need for a strong, charismatic leader and well-crafted, reassuring messages than now. Let us have time to get to know our employees, assess and develop their skills, prepare for post-Covid work, and prepare for rebuilding our team.
And let great ideas, concepts, creative campaigns be born! Because when the storm recedes, there will be a tremendous need for our souls to heal, to get close again, bring people together. And in this healing process, those who can uplift, encourage, and give hope with their words, will play a vital role.
The article first appeared in Markamonitor in April 2021. https://markamonitor.hu/2021/04/28/a-szavak-igazi-hatalma/
Zsofia Lakatos is a Member Emeritus and former President of the Hungarian PR Association, owner of Emerald PR, Valsag112 crisis consultancy and Business Sustainability Program.