Houston, we have a problem…how can people get it so wrong?  

‘Communication Shipwrecks’, a recent white paper by American-based business writing school, Hurley Write Inc, gives some cracking examples of the impact bad business writing can have on consumers, corporates, government and academia. Read these and wince. 

The issue: Metric mishap 

In 1999, NASA’s much vaunted $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter self-destructed upon entering the red planet’s atmosphere some 100 km closer and 25km lower than planned. This costly space debacle’s post-mortem revealed that Lockheed-Martin, the company which developed and built the Orbiter, had given the spacecraft commands using imperial weights and distances. NASA, on the other hand, was using metric.  

The lesson: Important business communication between individuals, departments, and across companies should be co-ordinated by experts trained to spot such glaring inconsistencies. 

The issue: When euphemisms cost lives 

Despite General Motors knowing in 2002 that Chevrolet Cobalts had ignition switch troubles, it wasn’t until 2013 – and after 13 deaths – that the problem was addressed. And the reason for the delay? Investigations found that rather than describing the issue as a ‘safety defect’, it had been continually labeled as a ‘customer inconvenience’, meaning the problem was never taken seriously. 

The lesson: Choosing to use a euphemism instead of honest, clear language in a workplace document can lead to untold misery, as 13 grieving families will no doubt testify. Precise, accurate wording in workplace documents is always essential no matter what the subject matter. 

The issue: Alleged fat shaming 

In 2013, retail store Target fell foul of self-nominated positive body-image police after describing a regular size dress as being available in ‘dark heather gray’ and its plus-size counterpart as ‘manatee gray’. No biggie until you realise that a manatee is a large walrus-like animal also known as a ‘sea cow’. The ensuing PR nightmare took weeks to die down. 

The lesson: The need for company-wide consistency is paramount. The choice of words in business documents really matters, with thoughtless wording able to severely damage a brand overnight.   

The issue: Be careful what you wish for 

In a mis-guided PR exercise in November 2013, banking giant JP Morgan Chase & Co innocently invited economics students to tweet questions of senior executives. Instead, tens of thousands of extremely unhappy customers wasted no time in venting their anger and frustration, asking (pretty much), ‘How can you live with yourselves when you rip your customers off so badly?’ 

The lesson:  Consider the medium you’re using and think very carefully indeed about the wording of any question you put to your customers. Social media is a no holds barred arena, offering businesses little, if any, control over responses. Will your company be able to withstand any potential fallout?  

For help with copywriting, proofreading or editing any of your business documents, contact Proof Communications on 02 8036 5532 or 0411 123 216 or head to the contact page.

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