How language changes: an ode to emojis

When I was younger I greatly admired the British journalist Miles Kington, who was credited with the invention of Franglais, a made up language that combined French and English.

Yes, I know, Shakespeare had examples of it in his writing, Monty Python had a sketch using it…but Kington really was the grande fromage of them all, IMHO.

Vous gettez the drift générale. Franglais was absolument nonsense of course, and while it might have instilled de la confiance in the average Rosbif, armed with the mighty French O Level (grade C), it utterly confused any French person who read it.

So, I’d love to know what Kington would have made of emojis. Why? Because Saturday is world emoji day. 🙌 World emoji day – who knew it was ‘a thing’?

Actually, it’s more than 20 years since the very first tiny emotive characters appeared on Japanese mobile phones. There are now many thousands of them and they have gone mainstream, across cultures and languages, even leaping from casual use to the professional.

The first time I saw one at work was when an investor relations adviser wanted to include 😃😃😃 in a financial results press release. When I suggested that the company should stick to ‘tried and tested’ language rather than emojis, I was told in plain terms that I was clearly ‘quite old’ and ‘didn’t get’ what they were all about. 🤦

Actually, I believe Emojis are a vital part of linguistic evolution. Just as I don’t address my partner as ‘thou fair maiden yonder’ so too in our increasingly digital communications space we are always on the lookout for new ways to express ourselves, and emojis are ‘it’.

Emojis convey a very basic thing well…that emotional nuance which can alter the plain text in which they appear. And that’s a very good thing.

We all know that texting is a hopeless way of communicating emotion. Once, in the early stages of dating a new partner, I was temporarily dumped because my texts apparently did not convey enough interest. If only I’d used a ❤️, I could have avoided some, er, heartache.

Sarcasm is particularly difficult with texts too…because you don’t hear that cutting tone or, when you think it is there, you risk overreacting. A 🤷 or an 🙄 followed by a 🤣would convey so much more – the other person is slightly irritated, but 🆗.

That’s not to say emojis are always welcome. I’ve seen bullies use smileys at the end of an unpleasant work email, a sort of passive aggressive language that allows them to be really mean while hopefully stopping just short of what is required for a harassment lawsuit. 👨‍⚖️

All this means we expect more and more from emojis as we seek to avoid causing offence or a misunderstanding, something that remains as important now as it did in Shakespeare’s day. This means emojis will continue as vital linguistic tools. A digital lingua franca, if you like. I’m sure Miles Kington would have liked that one.

Photo by Denis Cherkashin on Unsplash

(By the way, I’m a professional storyteller and run Portman Communications, a content and reputation management company in Switzerland. We work for clients all over the world. If I can help with your content or communications needs, get in touch!)

Return to work? But I was never away!

Commuters pictured at a major railway station in London

My clothes don’t fit. I spent too much time looking in the fridge when I was working from home during the COVID pandemic and now I’ve got a ton of weight to lose.

If this is you, I sympathise. I’m sure you are not alone.

Working from home certainly has its advantages – no commute, more time for yourself and no need to dress up beyond an appropriate top.

But there is a significant downside, and it’s not the extra pounds you may be carrying thanks to the magnet-like appeal of a well-stocked fridge. The real problem is the tyranny of the ‘always-on’ culture of home-working, which has increased pressure on those who feel they need to ‘show’ bosses that they really are working by exhibiting a level of presenteeism that even Gordon Gekko* would frown on.

Years ago I worked for a major organisation where home-working wasn’t just frowned on. It was actively discouraged. “If you’re not ‘at work’, you’re not working,” said my then boss as she insisted I took a day off when I asked to work at home so a technician could come and service my boiler.

I see this very organisation now says working flexibly can be a permanent option for office-based employees and that they just have to inform their manager of their intention to work remotely rather than request permission to do so.

That’s great, so long the downside isn’t having to be ‘always-on’, though I find it hard to believe my old boss will have changed her tune all that much.

For me, as the head of a communications agency, having colleagues I can rely on is essential. But I don’t expect 24-7 service. If I happen to be banging out emails at 11pm on a Friday, it doesn’t mean I want – or expect – them answered by return. I try to respect boundaries. I don’t want to impinge on colleagues’ home time.

At the same time, I trust my colleagues to know when a client needs their urgent response. I also know that the flexibility of home working means one of them doesn’t work in the afternoons for childcare reasons but instead logs on in the evenings to finish stuff off. I tailor my expectations accordingly.

All of which is why I grimace when I see headlines that talk about the big ‘return to work’. Honestly, what do they think everyone has been doing for the past months?

My colleagues have been hard at work, just not ‘at work’.

* Gordon Gekko was a fictional character in the 1987 movie ‘Wall Street’. Played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for his portrayal as the hard-working, hard-talking financier, he famously declared ‘Lunch is for Wimps’.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

The greatest gaffe ever – 30 years on

Gerald Ratner Tweets his regret about making 'that' speech 30 years ago to the Institute of Directors in the UK

It’s exactly 30 years since Gerald Ratner, Chief Executive Officer of the eponymous jewellery business stood up at a conference of the UK Institute of Directors and made a few jokes at the expense of some of his company’s best-selling products.

He described a set of cut-glass sherry decanters that Ratners Group sold for £4.95 as ‘total crap’ and joked that while a set of earrings was ‘cheaper than a prawn sandwich from [the UK retailer] Marks & Spencer’…‘I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer’.

Hundreds of millions of pounds were wiped off Ratners Group’s market value as shoppers deserted the company – and Gerald Ratner’s remarks became a classic in the reputation management genre.

Ratner, who now works as a motivational speaker, amongst other things, said his remarks weren’t meant to be taken seriously and blamed the media for over interpreting his words.

As I’ve reminded executives many times when delivering communications training, the media are not to blame here.

Many is the executive who’s slipped up by trying to be too clever or, worse, trying to be funny. Leave the jokes to the comedians, is always my advice.

The story is whatever the journalist decides it is. I tell clients, ‘Don’t expect them to see past your joke. Or to overlook a remark that is inadvertently funny.’

‘I want us to be as well-known as Disney,’ declared the then head of the Institute of Management Consultants as he spelt out his marketing goals to members at the organisation’s annual dinner a few years ago.

‘IMC President wants institute to become Mickey Mouse Organisation’ read the headline of my diary column that week.

I was standing next to the institute’s public relations adviser as I wrote his remark down. I saw her cringe at his words. Either she hadn’t advised the President properly or, much more likely, he hadn’t listened to her advice to take that comparison out. Big mistake. Huge.  

A woolly tale of reincarnation

Breaking news logo in front of a Woolworths high street store

 

Pick’n’mix is back! Or so said the news media as they reported claims by a random Twitter account that the defunct UK stores group Woolworths was making a comeback. 

Journalists rushed to file their stories, egged on by editors keen to be first with the news. 

Oops.

As later reported, the entire story was the invention of a 17 year old schoolboy who had put the fake tweet out as part of a study into digital marketing. The news media picked it up and what happened next will likely be the subject of media studies degrees for years to come. 

The scale with which the story spread ought to sound a loud alarm about the quality of the editing process at many news organisations. 

How did we get here? Well, in the 2000s as websites proliferated, media owners looked for savings and saw the subs bench – as it was known – as an easy target for redundancies. 

Sub editors were dispensed with and reporters were left to type their copy directly into a content management system before hitting ‘publish’. It’s quicker and cheaper.

When mistakes do happen, they can be corrected later. ‘Not wrong for long’ is the maxim. And we are all worse off for it. 

Years ago, one of the first stories I filed attracted the ire of a subeditor, who loudly summoned me over to his desk for a public earbending. My crime? I’d got a key fact wrong.

I gulped. Colleagues had been fired for less.

I recall opening my mouth to plead my defence.

The subeditor raised his index finger.

I paused. Wisely, it turned out.

“Always, always check your facts,” he growled. “And then read your story aloud to yourself before you file. You’ll be surprised at what you find you’ve missed.” 

I felt humiliated. Though not as much as I would have been had we gone to press with my error. I had learned my first lesson – and the subeditor’s job was done. 

This week’s Woolworths story is a salutary reminder of their value.

Crisis? What crisis?

Competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, mid-ocean Rowing 3,000 miles late last year across an ocean is the toughest thing I have done so far. With just over four months left to the start of this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I know how fortunate we were not to have had our training disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet the crews I know taking part this time have adapted well to cope, spending more time on their ergometers, pumping iron in their home-made gyms and honing the navigation, nutrition, and boat maintenance skills that will keep them alive when circumstances change. 

The nineteenth century military strategist Helmuth von Moltke maintained that no plan survives wholly intact after contact with the enemy. It’s a lesson we kept in mind during our row as key pieces of equipment broke, our power failed, and promised breaks in the weather failed to materialise.

It’s also a lesson I’ve applied in my day job as a communications director. Crisis communications strategies have to be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, adaptable even in the heat of an apparent disaster, and honed through rehearsal. Persuading senior executives to take time out to prepare, to role play, stress test, and to learn with you, is vital.

Company directors and ocean rowers alike will do well to consider that crisis management isn’t just a manual to pick up and dust off when things go awry, it’s an approach and a mindset that will determine whether you succeed or fail.