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Cultural Sensitivity in Writing and Publicity: A Primer

Turn on the news any day of the week and you’re sure to see a political figurehead, CEO or celebrity in hot water after an off-the-cuff remark is aired publicly. As publicists with franchise industry clients, we cringe every time we see it happen – the lasting damage done to an individual or brand after one of these incidents can be disastrous.

Take, for example, Donald Trump. Thrust into the spotlight more than usual after announcing his bid for the GOP nomination in 2016, Trump’s sound bites can be heard on every channel, news site and radio station around the country. Predictably, none of these sound bites portray him in a very positive light. In fact, Trump’s recent racially charged comments caused NBC and Univision to cancel its airings of the Trump-owned Miss America pageant. We can all learn a few lessons from this incident and others that come to mind. Before making a public statement, submitting a piece of writing or hitting “post” on a social media site, consider these questions:

Does what I’m about to say or write marginalize a people group?

The majority of these highly publicized crises of sensitivity often have one main offense in common: marginalizing, offending or stereotyping a people group. This includes perceived/identified gender, sex, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, weight, class, disability and education.

The chances that you or your business serves people from varied backgrounds and walks of life are great. It is generally good practice not to offend an entire sector of clientele with insensitive and offensive speech, even if it wasn’t meant as such.

For guidelines on how to appropriately write or speak about a people group while remaining culturally sensitive, refer to the AP Stylebook, which is constantly being updated and is the standard for political correctness in the media. For example, the Stylebook is largely responsible for the fact that it is no longer acceptable to refer to flight attendants as “stewardesses.” These guidelines are helpful when speaking or writing about potentially sensitive subject matter. 

Would I be proud for everyone I know to hear or read this?

Sometimes, when a public figure or CEO is caught saying something inappropriate or offensive, it’s an internal video or email situation where the person under fire was unaware that an internal email was being forwarded or a video shared. A great example is Sony, where hundreds of thousands of emails were leaked to the public, some revealing embarrassing information that surely was not meant to be shared. Unfortunate? Yes. Excusable? No.

Before speaking or writing, ask yourself if you’d be proud for everyone you know to hear or read what you’re about to say. In the age of digital communication, it’s easier than ever for a cell phone video to go viral, or for an email to be shared without consent. Think before you speak or write.

Will this reflect poorly on my company, my employees, my employer or myself?

In a similar vein, it’s important to understand that there is a chance that any publicized incident will stick with you or your company for a very long time. Even the most focused crisis communication plan has a hard time erasing racist, sexist or homophobic remarks. Before you submit writing, post on social media or speak publicly, ask yourself how what you’re about to say will reflect on your company and yourself. You are your own best brand ambassador.

Adapting to social norms in a world that is constantly changing can be difficult. When in doubt, be sensitive to other people and people groups. Like BP learned, it’s not always easy to clean up a huge spill – the stains can remain for a long time.

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