What are words for?

missingpersons2In their self-titled debut in 1980, new wave sensations Missing Persons cynically asked . . . “What are words for when no one listens anymore?” We could argue the merits of the song but the question is a good one. Of course in today’s world of 24 hour news cycles where sensationalism wins over substance and full length news articles are reduced to 140 character “tweets”, words must be carefully chosen.

Case in point – Warren Buffet made a three hour appearance on Squawk Box and shared his candid views of the current and future state of the global economy. He covered a range of topics and without sugar-coating presented a view that was both grim and optimistic. At fifty pages the transcript contains 27,000 words and dozens of insights but the international headlines that day reflected just one sentiment  . . . “Buffett says economy has fallen off a cliff”. Let the stampede begin. But wait; here came unlikely heroes to the rescue in the form of GM, Citibank and Bank of America to report better than expected news that led to a rally. As of today the Dow is back up over 7,000. Disaster averted, for now.  

Perhaps because I think about the impact of communications for a living, it seems obvious to me that a person of Warren Buffett’s stature making a statement like that on national TV is akin to throwing a grenade in a crowded room. The damage is done before you have a chance to provide context. I’m not suggesting that he or others who know the ins and outs of the economic crisis soft-pedal or resort to happy talk to make us all feel better. I am suggesting that people who are looked to as authorities and who are capable of building the nation’s confidence, think about the consequences of their words with the knowledge that everything will be reduced to a headline.

It can be done. President Obama was criticized for his negativity early-on and has tempered his language but still manages to get across a sense of urgency as he did in the this New York Times article on March 8 . . . “Look, I wish I had the luxury of just dealing with a modest recession or just dealing with health care or just dealing with energy or just dealing with Iraq or just dealing with Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have that luxury, and I don’t think the American people do, either.” Nicely said.

Here is another example of a candid but balanced message from HBS’s Michael Porter in a CNBC interview this morning. He speaks about the importance of the US focusing on its long term priorities globally, acknowledges the extent of our challenges but says without hesitation that the US will remain the strongest nation in the world. Good message. Credible source. No headline fodder.

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