As public relations professionals we need to be shining examples of communication etiquette when speaking in public or on social media. This is the first installment of our three-party Proof Positive series to help prevent self-made communications crises. We begin with examining the Consequences of Negative Language.

We have all sent a text or email, or left a rambling voicemail and wished we could have hit the undo-button and turned the clock back a few minutes. In the age outrage and backlash, even the slightest misstep can spiral into an enormous mess. When it comes to public relations, the old adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” still applies.

Avoid sarcasm and snark

Sometimes we need to admit that we aren’t that funny. Such was the case earlier this month at the annual Press Gallery Dinner, where journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the politicians they write about, come together for a meal and light humour. The Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May made an effort at comedy, telling attendees that former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr had more class than the entire federal cabinet, which soon backfired.

These comments were deemed as partisan, which the Prime Minister said was out of line for the event. To add further fuel to the fire, soon after his release on bail, Khadr held a press conference where pundits and media alike referred to him as humble and warm.

This case illustrates that one person’s humour can easily be misconstrued by another. Even the most salient point can be lost on an audience when your tone and language choice discolour your augments. As a result of her speech, May spent a news cycle apologizing instead of pushing her party’s platform before the fall election.

Consequences in the age of backlash

Today sharing negative or careless messaging won’t just be an embarrassment, it can affect your employment.

Earlier this month Toronto FC fans berated CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt, on camera. The men shouted crude obscenities at the reporter, who then challenged them on their antagonistic and explicit cat-calling. The video of Hunt’s confrontation went viral, spawned a hashtag and aired on new stations around the world.

Audiences identified the men in the video, and in one case, his employer reacted. The man in question lost his job as an engineer with utility company Hydro One.

Hydro One received so much flak for this man’s on camera actions the PR team felt it necessary to issue a press release detailing their policy around harassment and publicizing the man’s termination. Another man has been charged in the incident and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment has banned all those involved in the incident from attending games at its facilities.

Positivity is hardcoded into us, so go with it

A team of researchers from the University of Vermont conducted a meta-analysis of language use by reviewing literature, newspapers and social media and found humans use positive words more often than negative. We are biased toward positivity. The authors explained that positive interactions are built into the structure of language, and not just English, but all languages.


The study shows that when we share ideas we more often share positive ones. Think of the Pollyanna hypothesis, a current punchline for a goody-two-shoes character in pop culture entertainment. This theorizes that we remember positive ideas more readily than negative ones. So if the goal of our communication is to leave a lasting impression we go with our human nature and leave a positive one.

Read the next edition in Proof Positive Part 2: Preventing a Social Media Firestorm.

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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