Is it ever ok for organisations to talk about themselves in the third person?
Any media trainer will almost certainly say no, adding that nothing de-humanises a spokesperson faster than those who say ‘Organisation X’ rather than ‘we’ when speaking on behalf of their company, institution or NGO.
From Churchill to Martin Luther King to Boris Johnson, effective public speakers have always known and understood the importance of ‘we’ for building empathy. And, more recently, as Lindsay blogged in December, part of the spine-tingling power of UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn’s ‘Syria’ speech was in its appeal to ‘our children’ and ‘our values’.
Clearly, these are examples of rhetoric designed to quickly persuade and carry an audience with the speaker. But if you need convincing at a more mundane level, consider these two statements. Which one builds trust and makes you think the spokesperson is comfortable and open in the way they represent their organisation at a day to day level?
‘Company X does not believe the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B. Company X worked for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives.‘
‘We do not believe that the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B. We have been working for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives’.
Clearly, (unless you are a robot), you are going to pick answer B. It seems an incredibly basic thing for companies and public institutions to get right. And yet, many do still overlook the all-important ‘we’, with its overtones of collective responsibility and inclusiveness.
Why? How could they?
Part of this is almost certainly down to branding. In our sardine-tin of a digital landscape, many organisations probably believe the best way to stand out is to name-check themselves as often and as loudly as possible. There are also those who think using the third person adds gravitas, objectivity and even distance to sensitive or weighty issues. And while all of these arguments are understandable, they shouldn’t automatically be favoured over ‘we’ or ‘us’.
And finally, in certain (ahem) policy towns, the persistent over-use of the third rather than the first person may well be a hangover from the adaptation of written materials to oral ones i.e. where lines/messages are prepared on paper by subject matter experts working in their second or third language and without forethought about how the words will sound coming out of an actual human being’s mouth.
Which is why it’s even more essential for spokespeople to rehearse (or, at the very least, read) their work aloud before doing a press conference or green-lighting a press release. Otherwise, they run the risk of sounding like automatons who aren’t actually connected to the organisation they represent. And if they don’t sound like they care about their organisation, then how can the rest of us be expected to?