(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.