The ‘s’ word

Ages ago, I used to be a PR consultant. One day very early in my career, I phoned a journalist to (rather tremulously) pitch them a story.

Across the office sat a lady called Lynne. Lynne was a senior consultant the managing director had brought in to act as a mentor to us young’uns, and she was proper old-school PR (called people ‘darling’, talked incessantly about Reiki, had a vast leather-bound ‘contacts book’ but no idea how to switch a computer on).

Anyway, after I put the phone down, Lynne tilted her head to one side and said, ‘Laura, can I give you some feedback on that call?’

I cringed. Not just because she’d eavesdropped on my call and then offered unsolicited advice about it in front of the whole office, but also because of the word ‘feedback’. I’d barely heard it before, and it seemed at the time like the most bizarre, ridiculous piece of jargon.

My colleagues and I joked about it for weeks afterwards (‘Can I give you some feedback on those shoes?’ and so on – yes, hilarious, I know). Circa 2001, ‘feedback’ hadn’t yet entered common parlance. Maybe that experience scarred me, but I studiously avoided using it for years.

Of course, we’re at it all the time now. Feedback feedback feedback. You hear it all the time at Writer HQ. ‘We’ve got the feedback from that workshop.’ ‘Could you give me some feedback on that first draft?’ And it doesn’t bother me at all. (Though I’m still slightly allergic to using it as a verb: ‘Can you feed back by next Wednesday?’ Yuck.)

The same thing seems to be happening with another bit of corporatespeak: ‘stakeholder.’ It was always popping up on Boardroom Bingo lists. Here at The Writer, people seemed to do almost anything to avoid using it – or, if they had to, they’d stick it in slightly arch inverted commas. But now we seem to be mellowing. I’m starting to see it pop up unironically in the odd proposal or two: ‘We know how to keep even the most demanding stakeholders happy.’ It’s like we’re all looking around at each other and whispering, ‘So is it okay to say “stakeholder” now?’

How do we tell the difference between a new, useful bit of business language and insidious jargon? Simple: it’s jargon if there’s already a perfectly good alternative. There’s no other succinct way to say ‘stakeholder’: ‘person who’s involved in a project or interested in how it turns out’ doesn’t really cut it, does it? That doesn’t apply to, for example, ‘going forward’: we already have at least two perfectly acceptable phrases that mean the same thing (‘from now on’ and ‘in future’ – ‘going forward’ can mean either, which makes it vague as well as ugly).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use words like ‘stakeholder’ judiciously. But refusing to use them at all is like insisting on saying ‘electronic mail’ or ‘telephone’. Language changes.

So I’m ready to bring ‘stakeholder’ in from the cold. What do you think?

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