By Alisa Miller,
CEO and Co-founder
It’s safe to say, we have all come to understand the power of words to inspire or repulse, connect or disconnect, and impact the world. Nearly every aspect of our lives — personal, civic and professional — is being confronted with a cavalcade of events as we experience that world through polarizing lenses.
Consequently, many are asking, “What do we do to make it better?”
Our ESG communications and C-level leaders and colleagues are grappling with these new and ever--shifting realities, every day: how to cut through the noise, talk about what their organizations are doing to walk the walk, and hopefully match it with talking the talk, in every communication—and how to do so when every word counts. The dynamic signals that many words send are a code that needs to be cracked in today’s world to connect effectively.
The context is clear: trust in institutions and business has never been lower at the same time that a majority of the public says ethics and morality is in decline. For example, Edelman’s
Trust Barometer revealed last year that none of the four societal institutions that their study
measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is trusted. And similarly, Gallup found
that Americans broadly held dim and declining views of the state of moral values.
The power of every word’s impact was on acute display when we recently used Pluralytics'
software, which reads language and matches it for appeal to people’s values, to codify the
shifting use of language related to the broad themes of ethics, democracy, justice, and trust
across left-leaning and right-leaning media discourse. We sought to better understand the
connection between trust, ethics and relatability and the words we use and how it translates to people of differing world views.
Even as social media have become powerful amplifiers of our conversation around topics, the agenda-setting function of the media to drive the nature of that conversation continues in earnest. While our algorithm is tuned to help companies craft messaging that connects with values-based consumers – more than 50% of people say they factor in an organization’s values when making a purchasing decision – a by-product is the ability to track language across political divides.
In this case, we compared two corpuses of content from left-leaning and right-leaning news
publications crawled over a six-month period in 2020, April to September. The articles ingested were targeted using search parameters for word patterns related to ethics, leadership and democracy. We also performed the analysis on a similar content profile and matching time frame from 2015, producing a total of 2.6 million words and phrases.
Our findings, which are now integrated in our platform, will help support ESG and C-level
marketing and communications leadership to communicate more effectively and efficiently in these complex times.
What did we find?
You only need to travel back as far as 2015 to observe significant patterns in the language of
news discourse that indicate the rulebook has calcified along the lines of differing political world views.
A tell-tale sign of shifting language is whether or not what we call “catalyst words” are similar or different over time. In this study, catalyst words are words and phrases that are more likely to appear in connection with a topic and resonate with conservative-leaning or liberal-leaning audiences.
When we compared catalyst words between 2015 and 2020 around the topic of ethics, we saw significant and informative differences. In fact, only 12% of the catalyst words between the two time periods were shared, which indicates that themes and topics covered in ethics content appear to have evolved greatly over the last five years. For example, in the conservative-leaning corpus in 2020 compared to 2015, we saw much higher frequency of language associated with censorship and free speech (censor, censorship, offensive, criticize, tolerate, freedom). While on the left in 2020 we observed higher prevalence of words focused on peril and instability as compared to 2015 (uprising, lies, perilous, reckon, grief, peril, lying, hazard, unsafe, mortality, risky, precaution).
And, even more telling, we also found important emergent language patterns in what we call
“common ground” words. Common ground words are words and phrases that resonate across the political spectrum and demonstrate higher probability of appeal and connection. One particularly strong common word signal: in 2020, words around themes of distrust were broadly shared across the left and right cohorts and emerged strongly as compared to 2015. Words like “disinformation, distrust, scams, illegitimate, and ignorant” were broadly in use.
When it comes to semantics, the impact of the events over the last year will need to be
catalogued and analyzed for years to come to fully understand the dynamics at play and the long-term effects not only for our society but also the impacts on across all communications
disciplines. Take this self-review by MediaPost, a trade bible for media, marketing and
advertising professionals, which examines the “most covered terms of 2020.” In it, Editor-in-Chief Joe Mandese says that while predictably “COVID-19” was the highest frequency word
of the year in their coverage, “looking at keywords more representative of the industry's ethos during 2020, the term ‘meaningful’ was among the most referenced.” In fact, the word
“meaningful” outranked "trust, purpose, transparency, fraud, ethics, and empathy"
As Mandese points out, the “Marketing Word of the Year” for 2020 was “pivot,” as
determined by a member survey by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA),
with the three runners up being “virtual,” “resiliency” and “agility.” The survey participants were asked why they selected “pivot,” and the ANA published this representative response: “‘Pivot’ defines 2020 marketing. With all this world has brought upon us this year, we got a crash course in how pivoting is the only way to remain relevant.”
To coin a phrase in this context—relevant is relative. When you look at the word frequency rank of the MediaPost evaluation, ”pivot” registered 359 article appearances in 2020, quite far behind “trust” (665) “diversity” (526) “purpose” (469) and “transparency” (391).
At Pluralytics, we value many signals like word frequencies and other patterns around words
and values because they provide important predictors that are often revelatory about content creators’ strategy in the quest for connection with target audiences, and because they are a key factor in understanding the changing topographical contours of the communications landscape. Because every piece of digital content has a KPI, patterns of word and phrase frequency can be predictive. To put it simply: if language doesn’t connect and engage, marketers stop using it.
What can the language of 2020 tell professional communicators about how to navigate in 2021?
Our ESG colleagues are out in front when it comes to showing leadership and reaping the
potential benefits of purpose-driven communications and are poised to understand and respond to trends of transparency and inclusive, relatable messaging. They are striving to convey responsible, ethical frameworks and actions. In a December report, according to Dr. Arthur Krebbers, Head of Sustainable Finance, Corporates, for NatWest Markets: “The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of the importance of sustainability, which has served to accelerate the move towards ESG.” In “2021 ESG Trends to
Watch,” published in December by MSCI, a leading provider of research, data and technology to investors, their analysts put it this way: “COVID-19 has put its thumb on the top 1% side of the wealth scale, undoing decades of progress toward greater equality….In 2021, we see investors taking steps toward more creative, systemic approaches to reduce inequalities, with those in the vanguard willing to risk a few failures in pursuit of solutions.”
It seems to me that while a good “pivot” could have meant the difference between success or failure in the frenetically shifting sands of 2020, I would posit that one really laudable way for communicators of all stripes to “remain relevant,” improve our world and succeed as we head into 2021 is to deepen our professional ethos and the language we use around trust, diversity, purpose and transparency.
Now that’s a focus we can all embrace.
Want to know what values language your company speaks? Request a free ValuesFinder™ Snapshot from Pluralytics.
Want to track the dynamic landscape of words, values, authenticity and relatability? Follow Pluralytics AI on LinkedIn.
Alisa Miller is the CEO and Co-founder of Pluralytics, the first language intelligence
solution powered by people's values.