Public relations work, as with any communications discipline, can unfortunately be plagued by some pretty awful language from time to time. Journalists and authors have editors to stamp out bad word choice, but unless we vigorously police ourselves, even the best PR practitioners can be guilty of using phrases we wish would disappear from the industry’s vocabulary.
Here are the worst offenders on our terrible PR phrases list.
To “leverage” anything — unless you are talking about an actual lever using a pivot action to physically move an object. This tops the list of offenders (and others agree!) because it breaks a cardinal rule of clear writing: to avoid using a more complicated word to express something when a simple, clearer word does the job even better. “Leverage” is an overblown — and not entirely correct — way of saying “use,” so why not just say “use”? (And please don’t upgrade it to ‘utilize.’)
To “circle back.” We’ve gotten enough feedback from journalists to know this phrase is irksome. What does it mean, anyway? We think it’s an attempt at glorifying the “follow up,” which is an often necessary tool for getting things done.
“Status quo.” Another empty phrase too often abused by communications professionals when trying to make something sound better than it really is. If there’s no progress or action to report, be direct and to the point, rather than trying to dress the language up.
“Disruptive.” To be fair to PR professionals, this term tends to be abused by those in business and tech, but it’s fair game for this list. The term, coined by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, has a specific meaning that’s been co-opted too often. So next time you’re tempted to use this word, ask yourself: does this so-called “disruptive technology” displace established competitors by providing a service at the bottom of the market and relentlessly pushing its way upmarket? If not it might simply be a smart new service or product. Nothing wrong with that.
“Turnkey.” Apparently, this means “off the shelf,” or a total package ready to be implemented. It’s an insider term that, as shorthand, doesn’t do justice to what it’s meant to convey.
And for good measure, here are a few phrases we like. Purely subjective, of course, but we have reasons why we give these the thumbs up.
“No-brainer.” Use it sparingly, but we like the punchy clarity of what’s implied here.
“Key learnings.” Some here push back against “learnings” as a noun, but I think it’s evocative. It takes the older phrase “lessons learned,” which is passive, and simply transforms it into something more descriptive and active.
“Elevator pitch.” It’s been around for a long time, but it’s accurate, vivid, and there’s something appropriately dramatic about it.
“Bandwidth.” Doesn’t bother us. It may be dated, but it’s clear and has become a common way to refer to capacity.