Language, culture and PR

Although PR people are constantly trying to shape cultures – both community and corporate – with language it is striking how often they just focus on trying to use language to shape the culture rather than considering the complex inter-relationships between the two.

In all human societies throughout history language has been shaped by culture while language has also shaped the culture. Far too often, in internal communications for instance, PR people fail to notice a massive disconnect between the messages they are trying to communicate and the meanings conferred on those messages by the culture in which they are delivered. The simplest examples are always around messages about change, downsizing and so on – the listeners know it is bad news for them irrespective of the spin the PR staff put on them at the direction of management.

Politics, academia and not–for-profits do the same. For instance, the blog was rung recently by the Australian Conservation Foundation thanking it for past donations and asking for ongoing monthly donations. The pitch focussed on the ACF’s great victory in stopping a West Australian development. Now the language might have been convincing for many committed ACF members but to the blog it was nonsense and a disconnect. Sure the ACF had campaigned but Woodside had made the decision to stop the project for a host of reasons to do with internal rates of return, the international outlook, the dollar and the backlash by shareholders against resource companies spending vast amounts on projects for inadequate returns. Significantly, the Woodside share price went up after the announcement. The ACF culture had shaped its language and thinking to an extent that the person who wrote the script for the call centre employee who rang the blog believed it to be true and was convinced it would send a specific message which would reap a financial benefit.

On the other hand the most recent Big Kahuna leadership report from Donovan Leadership demonstrates some developing interactions between corporate culture and language. Donovan Leadership is a consulting, mentoring, coaching business which specialises in helping IT people develop the leadership and other skills managers need. Nerds might be terribly important but they also need to be able to manage and lead people and organisations. How Donovan Leadership does it, and the various Big Kahuna reports, can be found at

The latest report, as with previous ones, interviews a cross section of business leaders to identify the factors which would help IT managers have more influence within their organisations. What is striking in the report is a table which illustrates the changing language of organisational culture, why it changes and the direction in which it might be moving. It also highlights some of the anomalies in academic management culture and the language which flows from it versus corporate cultures (see the blog Irony and/or paradox 21/4/2013). The Big Kahuna table at page 19 of the report (see below and for the full report) is an excellent summary of how management structures and language have changed over the years. Most importantly the table illustrates that the structures don’t follow the language, or vice versa, but that the two are inter-related through all the complex interactions of corporate culture and language. It is an invaluable template for how communicators (corporate, political and others) ought to be thinking about language and culture in the next decade.

Brian Donovan, Donovan Leadership CEO, points out by the way that the term Infotronics Age in the table heading comes from an IBISWorld report. And to declare an interest the blog is an ACF member and a Woodside shareholder.


Leadership in the 21st Century

Industrial Age

Information Age


Infotronics Age

Command and   control Mutual   Accountability Agile – dynamic exploitation of value
Control   capacity Processes   and systems Unlock potential – authentic leadership
Formal authority Moral   authority Respectful authority
Authoritarian   style Participative   style Egalitarian style
Directive   behaviour Supportive   behaviour Collaborative behaviour
Defined   leadership style Innovative   style Adaptive and dynamic style
Risk averse Embrace risk Fail fast and move on
Directive Conversational Listening for what’s possible
Value   production Value   knowledge Value ideas
Manage   things Lead people Empower people
Manage   things and use people Use things   and manage people Manage things and knowledge and lead people with coaching
Do as I say Lead by   example Authentic Leadership
I know best Team   solutions Look globally for solutions from collaborators
Leaders have   the answers Leaders   collaborate to get the answers Leaders not afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and consult their own   networks
Dependence Independence Interdependence