PR’s Role in popular culture? Don’t tell him, Pike!

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Why the communications world needs to keep abreast of changing cultural references.

At first we thought all our investment in our son’s education had been wasted.

As a Trip Manager for Contiki, he had just added the UK to his portfolio of countries. This involved a lot of research into the history of our great nation and the unearthing of interesting facts and anecdotes with which to inform and entertain his guests during their travels. We therefore thought he might be able to help us with the origins of the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’. Instead, he simply looked blank.

However, a small straw poll of other ‘youngsters’ (ie anyone under 30), including in the office, revealed a roughly 50/50 split of those who had and had never heard the phrase.

(For those who are interested, there are a number of theories as to how it originated.)


It’s all about change

My colleague Richard has written previously about how our language continues to evolve and change. It occurred to me that this also extends to popular cultural references.

As if any further proof were needed, a colleague recently asked on Teams for a password he had forgotten. Another quickly responded with the message ‘Don’t tell him’; to which I immediately added ‘Pike!’ Cue various puzzled emojis from around the group.

So, for them – and for anyone else out there who has yet to sample this classic piece of British sitcom history, here it is. Still brings a smile to my face, however many times I watch it!

In our fast-moving world, words, phrases and references are constantly changing. Some come in and out of fashion; some are updated – I suppose, ‘ghosting’ is a sort of updating of ‘Sent to Coventry; some have their 15 minutes of fame. (And there’s another cultural reference with some ‘history’. It is apparently based on quotation misattributed to Andy Warhol – “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”)


Mind your language – and grammar

Grammatical rules change and evolve as well. Social media has helped to do away with a lot of punctuation and there seems to be an abbreviation for almost everything. But this has only speeded up something that was happening already. I learned to touch type in the 1980s, when the traditional letter was a big part of everyday business. At that time, we were abandoning the more formal letter layout with commas after the salutation and full stops after abbreviations (yes, we did have those even then!) in favour of the more simple ‘open punctuation’. This meant fewer grammatical rules to remember.

Such changes are not exclusive to the English language. We used to produce a customer newsletter for a client, which was published in several different languages. I remember our German translator, a native speaker, got involved in numerous discussions with the then proof-reader at the client, who was of a ‘more mature’ age and favoured a traditional and formal German over our translator’s modern and less rules-based approach.


Look who’s talking – and reading

For communications professionals, it is always important to match the message to the target audience. This includes style of writing and any cultural references. Our translator’s point was that the majority of the client’s customers were now more used to his writing approach.

Targeting is also about choosing the correct medium. We have recently been helping a client with a recruitment campaign. Speaking to one of the main media outlets for the area, it is interesting but not really surprising that they recommended that all activities be carried out online, as the bulk of the print readership was largely of retirement age.

Ultimately, for PR and communications professionals, when it comes to writing a story and populating it with the appropriate words, phrases and references, it is most often a case of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ – oh, sorry, should that be the Kardashians?

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