Words and Definitions Matter


Recently I was having a conversation about current issues in migration with a 17 year old. I was talking about my experience as a volunteer with an organization that hosts migrants who have been released from detention.

In the course of the conversation, I realized that the word “detention” is probably not the best word to describe the experience of migrants in custody. The young woman I was talking with was not particularly up on current events, and she didn’t fully understand what detention meant. From her response, it seemed like she imagined detention as akin to being sent to the principal’s office at school.

I said, “It’s like jail, they are locked up, often for many months.”

“Wow, really?” was her response.

This conversation led me to ponder why we call this “detention” and not “jail”?

The Merriam-Webster definition of detention is a period of temporary custody prior to disposition by a court.

This is a true characterization of the current situation for many migrants. However, temporary is not necessarily short, as the time can stretch into many months.

The definition of jail is a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody (awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes). This is as opposed to prison, which is a place of confinement, especially for lawbreakers.

So according to the definitions, detention and jail could be interchangeable terms, assuming they are held in lawful custody awaiting court action.

Would the policy debate regarding how migrants are handled by the legal system change if we called their custody “jail” instead of “detention”? Especially for young migrants, saying that they are being held in jails sounds different from saying they are being held in detention centers.

Of course, either word paints a much different picture than calling it “summer camp” for kids; terminology which has been recently used by some people to describe detention centers for minor migrants.

Word choice matters because the words we use to describe a scenario communicate values and perceptions. People who are in detention are locked up and are not free to leave. And they have to wait for a period of time outside of their control for a next step.

Some people in this situation are asylum-seekers, who are going through the legal process of applying for relief from a life-threatening situation in their home country. Others have crossed the border without permission. Either way, they are locked up for a period of time. Sounds like jail to me.

As I was reading differing definitions of terms and discussions over the nuances of language, this online comment caught my attention: “An old jail is a jail. A new jail is a detention center.”

My only hesitation is starting to use the term jail rather than detention center, is that saying that migrants are in jail makes them sound like criminals. People seeking asylum are not criminals.

Perhaps the word I will end on for these thoughts is “complexity” – one of the words that my daughter uses (along with “humanize” and “accompany”) in her work with people who are migrants.






The Next Next Thing

What is the topic you are going to write about after your current project is completed? Not worried about that yet? Thinking about tomorrow’s topic can make you a better communicator today.

Communication is a process rather than a one-time interaction. So as a communications professional, you should always be thinking about the next next thing. Whether you are communicating via blogs, social media, websites, videos, magazines, newspapers or books, consider where your communications topics are headed. Today’s topic is the burning fire you need to address and get out the door. But the intentional progression of topics from today to tomorrow to the next day (month, year) builds a brand, and a body of work.

Recently, as I was working on a quarterly newsletter for a client, I penciled in the topics for their next two newsletters. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the details of the future topics, since I was focused on the newsletter that needed to get to print. I might not even be responsible for future newsletters; however, the overall communications plan is important for my client. The ability to think ahead to the next topic in a sequence means that the quarterly newsletter topics will build on each other throughout the year. Recipients of the newsletters will have a more complete understanding of the overall organization, rather than receiving random bites of information spread across time.

Educators have a term for this kind of planning: scope and sequence. When planning curriculum, they consider the objectives for the course (scope) and the components of content that students need to reach those objectives (sequence). I admit that I may have oversimplified this educational concept for my purposes; but considering scope and sequence can lead to great communications planning.

So as you are working on today’s project, keep a sticky note (or evernote) handy to jot down topics for the next project, and the next next project. This kind of planning will keep you moving forward in communications, rather than just reacting to the needs of today.

The Simmering Part of the Creative Process

The “simmering” step of writing and editing is essential to high quality content. Over the years of editing many different writers and producing my own content, I have found that the most overlooked parts of the process are the thinking and simmering stages. The creative process tends toward mediocre when rushed or pushed.

1. Thinking time. My best writing comes after I have had time to ponder a topic. Often I will put a block of time on my calendar a week before an article is due. This gives me time to clarify the topic, mull over approaches, talk to other people, consult experts and think about the audience. This warm up time results in a cleaner first draft.

2. Get it down. The first draft isn’t the place to stress over word count or finesse. Start writing and get the big idea and take away down clearly. Often this draft is longer than necessary and includes some extra ideas or rabbit trails.

3. Let it sit. Overnight is preferable. If I have to turn writing around the same day, a stroll around the office, slowly sipping a cup of tea or switching to other tasks for an hour can give some objective distance from the content.

4. Read it critically. Is the big idea and take away clear? Is there a strong beginning? Is there extraneous material? Pay attention to word count. Edit ruthlessly. Just because I love all my words doesn’t mean that they are all memorable for my reader.

5. Let it sit again. The next revisions will be much better if I again get some distance from my work.

6. Go through one more time. Make every word count. Pay attention to construction, clarity, grammar, voice, tense.  Think about the reader. How will they process what I am writing?

7. Give it to an editor and expect revisions. They are not as wed to my precious words as I am and they hold an overall vision and perspective that I cannot see. Trust them and follow their lead in revisions.

When I receive content from writers who stopped at step #2, I make suggestions and send it back. My readers deserve more time and thought than just a few ideas typed into a file. They deserve finely crafted content. And that takes simmering time, thought, energy and skill, by both writers and editors.

Editorial Strategy: Flexibility vs. Planning

Editorial decision-makers are continually faced with the issue of how strictly to stick to an editorial plan and how often to veer from the plan to incorporate relevant content that connects with events in the world. With print publications, editorial planning ensures that the organization holds its voice in a consistent way. However, with social media and the need to be connecting daily with constituents via Facebook and Twitter, an artful combination of flexibility and planning is essential.

The planned aspect of content is a way to cover a variety of topics that all relate to the core brand, without neglecting some important aspect of the organization. The flexible side of content management means that there needs to be space within the plan to respond to occurrences in the greater community that impact constituents. An organization that doesn’t have any flexibility in content can be seen as irrelevant. At the same time, an organization without any content planning discipline can experience voice creep and lack of clarity on key messages.

For instance, when a news event occurs that impacts an audience segment, people expect an organization to comment on the event. If everyone is “talking” about an event in social media, and it relates to your constituency, but you aren’t talking about it, then you are not being relevant to the conversation. At the some time, some regular portion of organizational content online should not just follow news but to create news and content that people will start talking about. Planned editorial content spread across time is the way that your organization can shape and drive the conversation, putting forth content consistent with the values and goals of the organization.

The art of editorial content management is in the careful balance of flexibility and planning. One without the other is either irrelevant or undisciplined. Wise editors balance flexibility and planning, and are continually evaluating past messages for what they contribute to the overall organizational content strategy.

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