Posts Tagged 'Platinum bullshit award'

Shooting the messengers

A firing squad: sometimes it's not so much about who to to shoot, as who to save

Having been distracted by a research project that was like a giant, academic version of Talk Normal, I’m even more convinced of the power of the dark forces that would undermine our work. On the other hand, I’m less certain who the dark forces are.

It’s always easy to blame PR companies and their often laughable press releases for the pain of irritating jargon. In the UK, at least, that’s not the end of the story.

Let me show you why: I did some research which measured the frequency of the top seven jargon phrases identified in David Meerman Scott’s Gobbledygook Manifesto in 2006, which I already used as the source to find the worst press release in history. I looked at the frequency of these seven jargon phrases since 1990. While the use of jargon has increased dramatically – especially during the 1990s – the frequency of the jargon phrases was consistently approximately equal in newspapers and press releases in the UK.

So in the UK, on this (admittedly limited) evidence, jargon’s not just a PR company problem.

In the graph below, each blob maps the relative frequency of a jargon phrase in one year. If it’s on the diagonal line, it appears equally frequently in newspapers and press releases in that year.

Below the diagonal line, and the phrase is more frequent in press releases. Above it, and it’s more more frequent in the press. I used only major news sources and newswires, not geeky jargon-filled magazines.

As an aside, I did a similar plot for US sources, and the same jargon phrases are between 10 and 20 times more frequent in US press releases as they are in US news; and US news has much less jargon than UK news. So the conclusion that I draw is that, if a journalist’s job is partly about weeding out jargon from its raw material, American journalists are doing a good job and British journalists are doing a rubbish one.

The Plattie 2009: and the winner is..


It’s awards season, and you don’t need one of my fancy graphs to know that more bullshit has been published in the last 10 years than in any decade in history. I wanted to recognise this by giving Talk Normal’s first Platinum Bullshit Award (“Plattie”). What better way to celebrate than giving the award this year to the Gobbledygookiest Press Release of the Decade?

How to measure this? Luckily, I’m not the only person who snoops around in Factiva looking for bad communication to make fun of. David Meerman Scott, who has many more Twitter followers than me (I started late but I’m catching up – and at the time of writing, with almost 100, have only 31,416 more to attract), wrote one of the best anti-gobbledygook manifestos in 2006 with the help of the Factiva Reputation Lab’s text mining tools. He established a list of the most over-used rubbish gobbledygook phrases in the language, and did some entertaining analysis on them. Download it here.

In order, Meerman Scott’s top 10 worst offenders were: next generation, flexible, robust, world class, scalable, easy to use, cutting edge, well positioned and mission critical. I’m sure I’ve listened to keynotes where all of them came in a single sentence, but it takes some nerve to commit more than two or three of them to a single press release and then let other people see it.

different plattie

I wanted to give my first Plattie Award to the press release that had used the most words from his list. When I searched PR Newswire on Factiva I imposed one rule: I looked for single releases that were 2000 words or less to exclude the “mega press pack” effect – because, like with an infinite number of monkeys, if you leave enough press release writers in front of a computer for long enough, then combine their output together in a single giant release that describes a really rubbish trade show (for example), it might have every piece of drivel ever conceived in it. Imagine a release like that! Well, I’ve witnessed one, and let me tell you: it’s like staring at the sun – but not in a good way.

First of all I searched Factiva for releases using the worst phrase (next generation), then the worst two used together, and so on. There have been more than 77,000 releases which talk about next generation something-or-other, with Factiva reporting that the top five offenders are Microsoft, Motorola, Lucent, Sun and Texas Instruments. Add flexibility, and the number drops to less than 9,000, but – get this – the same five companies are the five most frequent transgressors.

At this point we note that, from now on, no one outside of the technology business even gets into the top ten.

Add another term (robust), and we’re down to around 150 releases per year. Lucent temporarily drops out of the power five, and in comes Intel. Only one in 10 of these releases – barely more than one per month at this stage – adds the claim of world classness to this potent mix. Intel’s gone, Lucent is back, and in a move that will be satisfying to many in Scott McNealy’s inner circle, Sun is suddenly gobbledygook provider number one, ahead of Microsoft! It couldn’t win the technology war, but when it comes to the battle to put the four most overused crap phrases into a press release most often, Sun finally bests its bitter rival. Factiva tells me Sun also had the largest share of the 60-odd releases that include scalability with the other four.

Eliminate every press release that carelessly fails to mention easy to use, and we’re down to six releases in 10 years. Could anyone use every one of the top seven gobbledygook terms in one press release? Sun falls at the final hurdle and is beaten by…

Lucent, the only company in history that dared to add cutting edge to the other six phrases and still send the release out.

When, in 2006, Lucent announced that Six New European Value Added Distributors Contract to Resell Lucent’s Security Portfolio, the press office probably had no idea that it was epitomising what historians will come to regard as the Decade of Twaddle. Ms Martina Gruger-Buhs and Mr Peter Benedict, your names were on the document; but something tells me this was a collaborative effort. Commiserations to Sun Microsystems too: no one could have tried harder.

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