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How to Overcome the Epidemic of Misleading Language

By now you've probably heard a great deal about United Airlines' infamous "re-accommodation" of a passenger on a recent flight from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville, Kentucky.

Just in case you missed it, the plane was overbooked – as is too often the case with major airlines – meaning four passengers had to give up their seats. Nobody volunteered to leave their seats despite large bribes (travel vouchers) being offered by United. Eventually, the airline randomly chose four unlucky souls to be forced off the plane. One of those passengers refused to leave. He was eventually dragged off the plane violently. Videos showed the 69-year-old passenger screaming in pain while being dragged toward the exit. His face was bloodied.

Predictably, those videos went viral, leading to a firestorm of backlash against United Airlines. The whole incident is made worse when you consider that the passengers were already onboard and in their seats waiting to depart.

Did the passenger act improperly by refusing to leave private property (the airplane) after being ordered to do so? Technically, yes. Was his anger understandable? Yes. Chronically bad treatment by airlines is maddening to paying customers. Is there something inherently wrong with overbooking planes and forcing paying customers to leave? Yes. How many other industries could get away with such a practice?

But for now, let's set aside the argument as to whether or not the passenger should have cooperated and instead focus on United Airlines' response.

PR Nightmare

The incident is being described as a public relations nightmare. It brings to light the controversial subject of overbooking. It's a vivid reminder that airlines generally aren't known for their customer service. It reminds people of poor treatment they may have experienced on previous United flights. The optics are never good when the big powerful corporation is perceived to be picking on the little guy.

Whenever a huge company makes a huge mistake the quality and speed of the response is critically important. PR experts almost uniformly agree that United botched it.

As I watched this story unfold, one word grabbed my attention and planted itself permanently in my head: "re-accommodated."

United CEO Oscar Munez has fumbled and bumbled several statements since the incident, but of all his poorly chosen words, this statement takes the cake:

"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," Munoz said. "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."

Re-accommodate? Is that a sanitized, made-up word for "having your face rearranged while getting kicked off a plane you paid to ride?"

Comedians and others have had a lot of fun with that statement, joking about the painful process of "re-accommodation" and how the CEO of United needs to get "re-accommodated" to the unemployment line.

Corporate Double-Speak

When I read Munoz's use of "re-accommodated," I was reminded of something that has always chaffed my ears – meaningless, politically correct, corporate double-speak. It's a long-standing problem in the business world and it shows no sign of going away anytime soon.

The business world is full of patronizing language.

A study by the Financial Times a few years ago indicated that fewer than 10 percent of business executives actually understood the meaning of commonly used corporate jargon and business buzzwords. The researchers surveyed nearly a thousand executives and found that "the overwhelming majority was unable to correctly explain the jargon they use on a daily basis."

The study described most of the surveyed executives as possessing "'admittedly ignorant' understanding of 'very confusing' management speak." Nevertheless, the survey respondents admitted to using an average of five corporate buzzwords each day.

Whether they uttered the words in boardrooms, in client meetings or social settings, the executives believed the words "made them look more professional or intelligent" and "cemented their positions of authority."

Similarly, when uttered in front of the media as a way to cover up or lessen the impact of bad corporate behavior, executives believe pseudo-intellectual, misleading euphemisms protect their companies and preserve their images.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Buzzwords, jargon, and corporate double-speak are painful to the ear and patronizing to the brain. Those who use such "words" in the hope of sounding brilliant end up sounding anything but brilliant at least to those people who are good at seeing through nonsense. Those who use deceitful euphemisms to gloss over bad decisions lose all their credibility.

The business world has long been plagued by the use of hollow buzzwords. Resist the temptation! Use clear, concise language. Over the course of time, clear communicators are more respected than those whose mouths spew never-ending phrases of institutional bollocks.

Jeff Beals is a sales consultant, professional speaker and award-winning author, who helps companies increase their profits and associations achieve their missions. He delivers energetic and humorous keynote speeches and workshops to audiences worldwide. To discuss booking a presentation, go to JeffBeals.com or email at info@jeffbeals.com or call Joni Woodruff at 402.917.5730.

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