Every person today is a camera, voice recorder, videographer and in retrospect, potentially your next PR crisis. However, while technology has made this all possible, it still does not eliminate the possibility of verbal vomit or whatever proper terminology is appropriate to adequately depict the disaster that was Ben Carson’s words in his first remarks to the Housing and Urban Development staff after serving a full week as secretary of the department.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,’’ he said. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
Is the speech writer to blame or was Ben Carson unaware of the backlash and bad press these words would attract? As a public figure it is essential to understand cultural sensitivity; in this careless statement it was evident that a true understanding of the target audience was not present. Days later a similar statement presented by President Barack Obama surfaced in which he also referred to slaves as immigrants yet did so with significantly less flak in response.
According to USA Today, President Barack Obama expressed that “certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them.”
Despite the similarities in these statements, it was possible for the Obama administration to maintain positive relations with the public following his statement due to the consideration of the setting, the word-choice, and cultural sensitivity that is present in the statement. Rather than using a harsh, sensitive term like “slave ships” President Obama used “those of African heritage.” That point was significant, however the key factor is the way the idea was presented very loosely in the “yet in their own way” as oppose to the seemingly factual statement from Ben Carson.
When writing speeches or public speeches cultural sensitivity and an understanding of your audiences is critical. An understanding of who you are addressing will then positively influence word choice, tone, and delivery.
Andrea Masamaba 4460-002