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They Take it Seriously? Oh, Sure

(I originally wrote this for PR Week magazine.)

Several weeks ago, UCLA acknowledged that some of its computers had been hacked. Obeying a state law, it notified more than 800,000 people that their personal data, including Social Security numbers, might have ended up in the wrong hands.

The fact that the data got loose wasn’t all that striking. Unfortunately, that’s all too common. What struck me was this statement from a hapless UCLA honcho: “We have a responsibility to safeguard personal information, an obligation that we take very seriously.”

When and where have I heard that before? All kinds of times and places, actually. It’s becoming a mantra that means almost nothing.

Try this: Plug “we take” and “very seriously” into a Google News or Yahoo News search. You’ll get hundreds of hits, albeit some repeats, where some big institution – corporate, educational, government, whatever – makes a giant blunder and then issues a “we take (insert the violated policy) very seriously” statement.

The news indexes of Google and Yahoo contain only the recent past, and not all media organizations. Run the same query on LexisNexis, and the number of hits grows exponentially. In other words, we have a trend.

Privacy violations, a drumbeat these days, constantly get this treatment. On December 15, the AP reported charges against a New Hampshire teenager who allegedly stole credit-card numbers from McDonald’s customers, with this quote from the company: “We take these matters very seriously…”

On December 14, after it was revealed that patients’ medical data went missing from a data-management company in Ohio, the healthcare provider’s spokesman intoned, “(W)e take this sort of thing very seriously,” according to a Pennsylvania TV station.

Taking things seriously isn’t limited to privacy slip-ups. A Texas district attorney, reacting to a Dallas newspaper’s successful campaign to unseal Catholic Church documents about alleged sexual-abuse cover-ups, said, “We take these kinds of abuse scenarios very seriously” (The Dallas Morning News, December 15).

And when a Maryland day-care center lost track of two children in a recent week, a spokeswoman told the local newspaper, “We are very sorry this has happened at our center and we take this matter very seriously.”

Of all the taking-seriously pronouncements, the day-care one seems most genuine. First, according to the news report, the center quickly and toughly dealt with the staffers who were allegedly responsible. Second, losing track of kids is ruinous for a day-care center.

Almost invariably, however, when I read or hear someone taking such things seriously, I think: They care mainly about getting caught, not screwing up. Otherwise, these things would happen far less often.

No doubt, this language is at least partly lawyer-driven. You can take something seriously – sort of, kind of acknowledging the mistake – while avoiding a hint of actual guilt.

But PR weasel-words don’t make the situation even slightly better, especially given the frequency of their use. They fuel cynicism and devalue the language.

A straight apology? That, we might take seriously.

11 Comments on “They Take it Seriously? Oh, Sure”

  1. #1 Phil Gomes
    on Jan 9th, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    “We take this very seriously” is kind of like one of those knee-jerk terms, I guess. You’re right… Certainly no substitute for an honest-to-god apology.

    One PR wiggle-phrase I used to love to lampoon was “We Are Pleased,” which you see in executive quotes ALL THE TIME. I had created the “Gomes Index Of Executive Happiness” with the intent of perhaps showing how it might’ve gone *contrary* to, say, the S&P 500. I eventually abandoned it after making my point.

    http://www.philgomes.com/blog/2005/03/behold-gomes-index-of-executive.htm

  2. #2 Nathan Herring
    on Jan 9th, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    “We take it seriously,” is an information-free statement. Of *course* we expect them to take these matters seriously. I mean, is it really likely that some PR rep is going to say, “we take it frivolously?” Even if they “took it” normally, wouldn’t that be “seriously”? All the statement serves to accomplish is to handwave and to imply some kind of ramifications. These ramifications are left up to the imagination of the reader, but no doubt they’ll be “serious”. In some cases, I expect that the only ramifications belong to the imaginations of those people the PR dept. addresses.

    What people want to know is (1) how these sorts of issues were guarded against before and (2) what changes will be made (if any) to guard against it in the future given the current issue. Now, they may not want to know those items in detail, but you get enough statements that mean “we’re taking care of it” followed by obvious not taking care of it, and some ability to peer into the system is desired.

    Of course, something like that would be a rarity in this CYA world, but even “No comment” would be better than this blandness.

  3. #3 robhyndman.com » Blog Archive » “We Take This Seriously”
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 6:04 am

    […] Dan Gillmor on knowing when they don’t “take this seriously”.              Related Posts […]

  4. #4 BLOGical Thoughts » Wednesday, 10 January, 2007
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 7:05 am

    […] They Take it Seriously? Oh, Sure […]

  5. #5 Anna Haynes
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Your call is important to us, and we’ll be right with you, in order to serve you better. We’re sorry if anyone was offended.

  6. #6 Alex
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    I think what they mean to say is “We took it, seriously.”

  7. #7 QrazyQat
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Have a nice day…

  8. #8 drmike
    on Jan 20th, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Sure we take it seriously. So seriously that we’re going to give lip service to something we should have fixed years ago. :)

  9. #9 SubWolf
    on Feb 2nd, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Hey Dan,

    CNet article today regarding the Gawker Media ads on YouTube @ http://news.com.com/Gawker+Media+mystery+ads+appear+on+YouTube/2100-1025_3-6155627.html?tag=nefd.lede

    Quote (from YouTube):

    “We take copyright issues very seriously,” the spokesman said.

  10. #10 Voice Out Your View Point » Blog Archive » ConEd Takes Lying, Cheating, ESCOs “Very Seriously”
    on Feb 14th, 2007 at 9:01 am

    […] “extremely seriously,” (aside: here’s what other companies are taking “very seriously” ) Whenever a customer complains about an ESCO, ConEd reports this to the Public Services […]

  11. #11 Voice Out Your View Point » Blog Archive » ConEd Takes Lying ESCOs Like IDT Energy Super Seriously
    on Feb 14th, 2007 at 9:26 am

    […] “extremely seriously,” (aside: here’s what other companies are taking “very seriously” ) Whenever a customer complains about an ESCO, ConEd reports this to the Public Services […]