The Talk Normal Files (again)

I have lovingly saved this in the Talk Normal vaults. I promise I don’t live in a flat piled high with old newspapers, pointing at stories about words and shouting SEE WHAT I MEAN!! to the guy from Tesco who delivers my shopping. I’m saving that pleasure for my retirement.

This one from The Telegraph, October 7 2008 (I think):

plain speaking

So it’s year old, but I wasn’t writing a blog then. Oh how I’ve waited for this moment.

This set me thinking: when did we start talking about stakeholder engagement? I resolved to find out. Don’t worry about me mum. I know how to enjoy my leisure time.

So I looked it up. Guess: when was the first time you heard about it?

The first mention I could find was in a magazine article from 1996 in which, in the first sentence, negotiators in the medical industry were described as lightning rods that take heat and keep things on track. Like a grammatical godzilla sowing the seeds of a paradigm shift, this triple mixed metaphor seems to have created a wormhole that sucked stakeholder engagement into the published language.

Being both ugly and hard to understand, the phrase took time to catch on: there are only 10 published mentions anywhere in the world before the millennium – and two of them were in a story about a magazine for Balkan immigrants.

After the year 2000 it really caught on:

Stakeholder engagement

The initial impetus, and most of the coverage through the middle years of the decade, came from the new discipline of sustainability reporting: oil, gas and energy magazines were the big users. The energy companies might still have been despoiling the environment, but at least they had found a fancy phrase for the process of asking us what we thought about it. Later the phrase began to spread out to other industries such as gambling and public relations, eventually reaching Harrow Council – until it was stopped.

I’ve only looked at magazine and newspaper articles. In meeting rooms and conference calls there are no copy editors to act as lightning rods and take the heat to keep us on track.

For the record: I like new words. I enjoy change and am down with where the kids are at. I don’t smoke a pipe. I also feel that sustainability reporting has done a lot of good. But by giving bureaucrats this new phrase with which to confuse us, sustainability reporting has also caused its own special type of pollution.

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