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View from the Street: The importance of being human: we need to change our attitudes to platitudes

David Gaffney

Senior Partner

“We apologise that in this instance our usual level of service has fallen below the high standards we demand. We are committed to working in collaboration with the school and are implementing an immediate action plan to rectify these issues.”

So said a spokesman for catering firm Chartwells today, in response to claims by a headteacher that the standard of school meals it provided was “completely unacceptable”.

It got me thinking about the style and content of corporate statements, which tend towards the formulaic and often list virtues and values that firms are apparently “committed to”, lest anyone conclude their only commitment is to maximising profits for shareholders.

You will have read these corporate cliches and stock phrases on countless occasions:

“The safety of our employees is our number one priority…”

“We take the security of your data extremely seriously…”

“Our team is working hard to resolve the issue…”

“We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience caused…”

They are the “lines-to-take” that flustered press officers reach for instinctively, as a new parent might reach for a dummy to pacify a screaming baby.

They are so familiar that we often barely register their presence, beyond a subconscious acknowledgement that the sentence fits the narrative arc of the story. We rarely stop to interrogate the intention behind the words, to examine their meaning and question their integrity.

A platitude is defined as “a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating cliché, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. The statement may be true, but its meaning has been lost due to its excessive use.” So far, so fair.

I understand why bland and repetitive statements are deployed in the face of dangerous, difficult, or distressing events. These are not the ideal conditions for experimenting with bold new narratives or alternative approaches, just for the sake of being different.

That said, I do believe reaching for the corporate phrase book often betrays a lack of genuine human compassion. A gap in the market exists for empathetic accountable officers who say what they mean and mean what they say. It would go a long way further towards appeasing disenfranchised customers than the wordsmithing-by-numbers approach that prevails.

Are you really working hard to resolve an issue, or do you simply and cynically recognise the need to say you are? Is the safety of your employees genuinely your number one priority as an organisation, or a convenient cover for an avoidable accident? Can your stakeholders have faith in the words you say, or is it just hot air?

Ultimately, as with all reputational matters, it’s a question of trust. People will believe you if they trust you. They will trust you if you are honest and open with them. If you are open with them, you will take time to explain things in person where possible, rather than hiding behind words on a page. They are more likely to accept your apology if they believe it is heartfelt, but that requires more than just signing-off a statement or having a prime minister plead your case.

Corporate statements are composed by committee. One or two comms people create a first draft and share it with colleagues. It goes through various iterations – and multiple minor crimes against the English language are committed – before a consensus or a deadline is reached.

Increasingly, though, these lines are being written by artificial intelligence (AI) language models. Ask ChatGPT to draft a corporate statement apologising for a data breach and within seconds you’ll have a response that is indistinguishable from the examples above.

That is an existential risk for the communications profession.

If we are to persuade clients of the value of our services in the age of synthetic content, collectively we will need to raise our game. We need to offer more than the platitudes traditionally served up by organisations finding themselves in a reputational fix. We need to satisfy ourselves that every commitment to safety and security is supported by actions that justify the words on the page. That apologies are felt as well as vocalised.

Our humanity is our only competitive advantage over machines, but too much of our output is already indistinguishable from AI-generated content. Maybe, as a communications industry, we need more candour in appraising our own performance.

“At times, we have been guilty of laziness and complacency. Our customers are meant to be our number one priority but we do not always serve them well. We know we can try harder and do better. That task starts immediately,” said a spokesman for the strategic communications industry.