What’s in a Name? Part II: A Border Brouhaha


Map of Carson

As the current border brouhaha between Carson City Councilman Albert Robles and the Daily Breeze newspaper illustrates, there’s great importance attached to the names used for geographic areas – especially when they’re used in conjunction with undesirable activities or tarnished reputations.

In this case, the councilman drafted resolutions that would require the city to cancel its subscriptions to the Breeze and would urge residents to boycott the newspaper over its usage of “published accounts of homicides, other crimes and negative stories” that were reported as “misleadingly located ‘near Carson.’”

The Daily Breeze’s editor, Michael Anastasi, responded with a letter to the Council and residents that said the newspaper “has consistently referred to the unnamed unincorporated area of Los Angeles County near Carson as just that.” To his credit, he said, that: “While it is unfortunate that Carson may cease being a business client of the Daily Breeze, we will not bow to financial pressure.”

He offered to meet with city leaders and noted that no meeting had been requested prior to Robles public complaint. Robles has delayed action indefinitely on his resolutions and said he plans to meet with Anastasi.

As we noted in an earlier post, names are powerful. They can evoke entirely different emotions and leave entirely different perceptions among different groups of people and among different individuals. Successful communicators consider their audiences in choosing which words to use. In the case of Carson, the Daily Breeze likely never considered how its descriptions would affect Carson. Moreover, some of the stories Robles cited were written by City News Service, rather than the Breeze’s staff.

But similar efforts have changed neighborhoods’ names. Note, for instance, the successful campaign that changed South Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles after the notoriety the neighborhood gained as the epicenter of the 1992 “civil unrest.” (Civil unrest was another term created to replace the word “riot” in referring to the violence that erupted after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King.) Property values often hinge on monikers, leading to the creation of such terms as Malibu adjacent or Beverly Hills Post Office, i.e. not in the City of Beverly Hills but assigned to use the postal services of Beverly Hills.

In the case of Carson, several have noted that the criticism came after a Daily Breeze story about political intrigue leading up to city elections, suggesting the border brouhaha may have more to do with the critical coverage than the geographic description. But the councilmember’s resolutions have kept the focus on the geographical description of incidents happening in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County located between Carson and Torrance.

Robles pointed out that these areas could be described as Harbor Gateway or an unincorporated area near Torrance. Some consideration may be in order to more clearly describe the unincorporated areas in the Breeze’s circulation area.

The LA Times sought to do just that by creating a map of LA’s neighborhoods in 2009. But it faced substantial challenges and reached an imperfect compromise. The newspaper invited comments on its first attempt at mapping neighborhoods and received more than 1,500 comments, resulting in nearly 100 changes in the map.

After all this work, the paper said: “We’ll be the first to acknowledge that our map isn’t perfect. No lines can capture the geographic diversity and demographic energy of Los Angeles.”

What other communities have you seen renamed because of political, social or real estate concerns?

What’s in a Name? A Lot!


Flying book - orig“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet from the play, “Romeo and Juliet.”

What’s in a name? A lot, as it turns out in the recent debate over the Santa Barbara News-Press’ use of the name “illegals” for “undocumented immigrants.” The newspaper’s leaders defended their use of illegals as an accurate depiction of people who are in the country illegally. Immigrant rights groups decried it as a pejorative term and called for a boycott of the paper.

No matter which side of the debate you may favor, it’s clear that words are powerful. A name, a word or a phrase can evoke entirely different emotions and leave entirely different perceptions among different groups of people and among different individuals.

The key to winning communications is to understand the audience you’re trying to reach and how the words you use will be received. What matters is what people hear – rather than what we say. In an successful communications plan, understanding the intended audiences will effectively guide your word choices and messages.

Listing those audiences, and then envisioning an individual in each audience will help you understand how your messages will be received. Creating a portrait of the individual can be done by answering questions like these: Who is that person? What is his/her age, background and educational level? What does s/he like and not like. What does s/he do for a living? Where does s/he live? Does s/he have children? If so, how many and what ages?

Once you have that complete portrait, here are some basic rules for developing the words and messages for each target audience:

  1. Keep it Simple: Use small words and short sentences. That’s how we talk, and that’s how we should communicate in writing, public speaking, broadcasting, etc.
  2. Be credible: Audiences will see through the bogus claims, and they won’t believe anything else you’re saying.
  3. Be consistent: Repetition is important in driving a message home. Finding slightly different ways to convey the same concept will ensure your audiences get the message without being annoyed by the repetition of the same phrases over and over.

While every communications program differs, the psychology department at Yale University has compiled what it says are the 10 most powerful words in the English language for advertisers. Perhaps some of these will help you:

  1. You: Listed as the No. 1 most powerful word in every study Yale reviewed. It’s a favorite for ad copywriters.
  2. Results: It rationalizes an action, a purchase or a donation.
  3. Health: Especially powerful when it applies to a product.
  4. Guarantee: Presents a sense of safety.
  5. Discover: Provides a sense of adventure.
  6. Love: Who doesn’t value this?
  7. Proven: Helps remove the fear of trying something new.
  8. Safety: Especially useful with products and new experiences.
  9. Save: Even more meaningful since the recession spawned more bargain hunters.
  10. New: Humans seek novelty.

What other powerful words do you use?

MLK’s Communications Lessons Resonate Today


Love-is-the-only-force-capable-of-transforming small

As we honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King today, we also note that his remarkable ability to inspire and lead through his words and actions serve as examples for today’s communicators.

The success of the civil rights movement is due, in large part, to the effectiveness of Dr. King and its many other leaders in clearly defining their objectives, audiences and messages and in developing the tactics to deliver those messages to achieve their goals.

This year’s movie, “Selma,” while having some historical inaccuracies, illustrates the communications skills of Dr. King and the civil rights leaders in one tumultuous three-month period in 1965.

The movie portrays one of their many strategies to achieve the long-term objectives of ending segregation and achieving equality. The civil rights leaders in Selma were marching to secure the right to vote for all African Americans so they could change the people in power, especially in the South where racism helped elect and keep some politicians in power, such as then-Gov. George Wallace.

Their audiences were whites and African Americans alike. While some criticized the use of young people and women on the front lines of protests and marches, the images of fire hoses, whips and clubs unleashed on these nonviolent marchers moved the very audiences they were trying to reach. As the movie shows, the brutal attacks spurred white Americans to join the marchers in Selma.

Dr. King viewed his message very simply, saying, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” As the movie shows, his message of love, integration and nonviolent protest provided a powerful and persuasive counterpoint to other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, who advocated for the establishment of a separate black community and the use of violence for self-defense. (The movie also illustrates the importance of Malcolm X’s advocacy in making Dr. King’s message more appealing to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and other political leaders.)

The civil rights leaders’ tactics were to use words, actions and visibility in the media to change the law. In the movie, they discuss the likelihood of a violent reaction to their peaceful march. The sheriff delivers the reaction they had expected. The media broadcasts the brutality against the marchers around the country, generating the desired backlash against the sheriff and others who had denied African Americans the right to vote.

The marches in Selma spurred President Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Dr. King at his side, a law that has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever approved by Congress.

Throughout the civil rights movement, Dr. King and the other leaders knew that the many nonviolent protests they waged would be ineffective if they were not covered by the media. Their effective use of words and actions drove media coverage, and that coverage drove change.