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She wants to be called what? Words and how they are a-changin’

By Afrika Nieves-Bentley on February 26, 2024

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The text "Words have power" shows through a torn piece of green paper stock.

When you first enter this brave new world of PR work and can’t wait to show off what a great copywriter you are, you have to remember something important: the best PR writers aren’t notable for their personally dazzling talent. The best PR writers tailor their writing to reflect the brand identity of the client. The brand identity is the star of the show, not the quality of the copywriter’s skill. It seems obvious, but it’s more complicated than you’d think to make sure you’re letting the brand speak for itself. My column this month is a warning to others just starting in the communications industry. Sometimes, when we’re fresh from school, we’re eager to show off the skills for which we got the highest grades in college. But don’t get caught up in being a show-off: get caught up in what the client’s brand needs to say to the world. 

Here are some examples of when communications professionals chose specific words in their copy that surprised me, but they all had a good reason for doing so. In seeing their work, I appreciated what they were doing for their brand identities and learned to broaden how I see the role of PR copywriting.

During a recent press conference held by the London Police Service in southwestern Ontario, the chief started off his statement by letting media and viewers know that the complainant at the heart of the criminal case wanted him to refer to her as the “victim.” Many advocates against gender-based violence prefer the term “survivor,” so I was surprised. But the communications officer for the force, who presumably prepared the chief’s statement, had to make the strategic decision to show that the officers were working on behalf of the woman. They were right to show that listening to her wording preference was important.

In late January, I was part of the unveiling of the bust of Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first Black MP and Ontario’s first Black lieutenant-governor. During the ceremony at Queen’s Park, one of the speakers quoted Alexander himself in his speech:

“I am not the spokesman for the Negro; that honour has not been given to me. Do not let me ever give anyone that impression. However, I want the record to show that I accept the responsibility of speaking for him and all others in this great nation who feel that they are the subjects of discrimination because of race, creed or colour.”

It was important for the speechwriter to honour Alexander using his own words. Of course, in the 21st century, it is uncomfortable to use and hear the word Negro. Words we use today might be wrong tomorrow, but that’s OK. Use the best terminology that you have available to you while always remembering what brand identity your client is trying to cultivate.

Think of how often my favourite Fab Five member, Jonathan van Ness, lovingly calls people sluts on Queer Eye and social media. When he says it, it’s empowering, not insulting. There was a time when we didn’t know how to reclaim that word, but if anyone knows their brand and what they stand for, it’s Jonathan van Ness.

So get out there and let your client’s brand be the sexy slut it’s meant to be. Or words to that effect.

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