There is something I am taking very seriously, the phrase “taking very seriously”. It seems that there is nothing – from major disasters to being kicked off Bake Off – that is not being taken, not seriously, but very seriously, these days.
How has this phrase become so overused? I have a clue from my many years advising clients on crises. When the proverbial hits the fan you are often scrambling about for something to say. You are faced by a whole set of pressures:
The need to respond quickly – all the more in these days of instant social media which acts as judge, jury and executioner in a matter of minutes;
The need to show empathy – something that corporations and governments in particular find very hard to do;
You almost certainly do not know all the facts, not even half of them, or even 25%;
Your lawyers are extremely nervous about what you might say for fear of incurring liability. They will be trying to stop you saying what comes naturally – especially if you are English – which is “sorry”. My former colleagues Nick Wright, Sue Stapely and Guy Corbet have been conducting a marvellous campaign to clarify the use of apologies in law. But there is still lots to do.
Saying “we are taking xxx very seriously” is useful because it says:
We are (sort of) doing something;
We care – after all is to us “very” serious”;
We’re finding out what is going on.
There is an implication that we will get back to you but, as most statements in the minutes after an event are an attempt to buy time, don’t count on this. The hope is often than the media will lose interest in the story.
The problem with any useful phrase like this is that it is being rendered meaningless by overuse. When it is trotted out these days it receives the same rolled eye response that I get when asking my teenagers about their homework.
So, it’s time for some fresh thinking. I have a few phrases in mind but I’m not sharing them here as I will try them out next time I have to help in a crisis.