Does profanity help or hurt your audience messaging?
As communicators trying to reach diverse and disparate demographics, it’s usually unwise to offer anything that might be taken offensively. However, strong language can deliver benefits.
Beto O’Rourke, who is running for president, got plenty of coverage for his impassioned outburst over a question about the president’s response to the mass shooting in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, which he represented in Congress.
Someone asked him whether Donald Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric had anything to do with the El Paso tragedy, before which the suspect, now in custody, had published a white-supremacist screed on the website 8chan.
“What do you think? You know the sh** he’s been saying,” O’Rourke said. “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the f***? Hold on a second. You know, I — it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just — I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
O’Rourke’s off-the-cuff utterance stood out from the reactions of other candidates, who were likely just as genuine but whose responses had more words but somehow less feeling. They used more-familiar turns of phrase — they said we can’t tolerate this violence, they said we need background checks, they said they “had no words.”
O’Rourke is no stranger to using four-letter words. He famously swore on national television as part of his concession speech after his bid for U.S. Senate came up short in 2018.
Some have found O’Rourke’s outrage refreshing, but others have used his choice of language to disqualify his message.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called out presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke Tuesday for “screaming and cursing” about President Trump in the wake of the mass shootings over the weekend, including in the former Texas congressman’s hometown of El Paso.
Outside of the polarization of politics, profanity can be a dividing point for many audiences. Despite the rise in use of profane language, many audiences don’t appreciate offensive language being flung around.
We might debate what’s responsible for coarsening public discourse, but profanity poses a larger question for PR pros: When is it OK to swear?
One thing to consider is the authentic emotion a well-placed curse word can offer.
Curse words can help you more accurately communicate your emotions, which contradicts the folk belief that people use profanity because they lack vocabulary skills.
“This is the ‘poverty of vocabulary’ myth, that people swear because they lack the right words due to impoverished vocabulary,’’ [Timothy Jay, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has written extensively about profanity] said. “Any language scholar knows otherwise.”
Dr. Jay was the co-author of a 2015 study, published in Language Sciences, that tested the ability of people to generate words beginning with a given letter. It ended up debunking the poverty-of-vocabulary myth.
“We found that people who could generate a lot of letter words and animal names could also generate the most swear words,” Dr. Jay said. “So as fluency goes up, so does the ability to say swear words, not the other way around.’’ He added, “Fluency is fluency.”
However, many media pros caution against using profane language.
Joe Mcleod, a public relations strategist at McLeod Communications and a co-host of the PR & Politics podcast, says the risks are rarely worth any perceived value.
“In addition to being offensive to many listeners, profanity can distract from the broader message the speaker is trying to convey,” Mcleod says. “Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is known for his expressive vocabulary in private meetings but has acknowledged he does not use profanity in media interviews—and there’s a reason: In most cases, the risk outweighs the reward.”
If you are dead set on using the language you want to use, Mcleod says to take the situation into consideration.
“It’s all about context,” he says. “Who is saying it? Who is the audience, and what is the situation?”
He adds: “There are occasions when stronger language might be more acceptable, while other times it’s seen as offensive and unnecessary. It’s important to remember that communication is about connecting with the audience. The language we use—good or bad—will either strengthen or sever that connection.”
Brad Phillips, chief executive of New York City-based Throughline Group, says profanity is less risky when it’s seen as part of an authentic emotional response.
“Although social mores are changing, profanity always comes with the risk of upsetting or even alienating parts of an audience,” he says. “It becomes less risky when it’s seen not as gratuitous, but as a righteous anger in service of a more important topic.”
For Phillips, O’Rourke’s language was part of a gamble to inflate sagging poll numbers.
“Strategically, Beto O’Rourke is lagging in the polls and needs a breakout moment to resuscitate his campaign,” Phillips says. “While his use of profanity may have been spontaneous, he had more to gain by being seen as a leader in his community—and swearing increased the media coverage he received for his efforts—rather than issuing a bland statement that would have been summarily ignored. Plus, it’s an open question whether his potential supporters aren’t also swearing at the nation’s inaction on gun control.”
If you do have an outburst laden with four-letter words, should you immediately apologize?
“It depends,” Mcleod says. “Public officials should always be mindful they represent a diverse range of constituents. If there’s significant blowback from a poor word choice, it would be best to apologize for using profanity and use the opportunity to underscore the original message.”
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POLL: When is profane language permissible in messages to your audience?
— PR Daily (@PRDaily) August 8, 2019