Change A Word Or Two And You'll Change The Whole Debate

Doug Hattaway, the president of Hattaway Communications, drops by to discuss how changing just one word can often change the whole message of a particular argument. This week, just such a change helped pave the way for a Democrat and Republican agreement on lifting the debt ceiling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Some would say a small a small miracle happened in Congress this week. The House and Senate passed an increase of the country's borrowing limit that was clean - meaning there were no spending cuts or other conditions attached to it. It was also passed without much drama: no default countdown clocks flashing on cable news channels, no last-minute negotiations. Even the rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans seems fairly tame. Well, Doug Hattaway says that happened in part because of a simple turn of phrase that his communications firm helped introduce. And Mr. Hattaway joins us in the studio. Hi.

DOUG HATTAWAY: Hi there.

SIEGEL: You can contend that this came out to just changing some words. Which words are we talking about?

HATTAWAY: We're talking about changing the word debt ceiling or debt limit to the word default. What we do at my firm is map out the language that's used to define the national debate on a given topic. When we looked at this debate, Democrats and Republicans were both saying - talking about raising the debt limit. We suggest the Democrats start a new conversation by talking about default instead.

SIEGEL: Avoid default?

HATTAWAY: Exactly. The problem for the Democrats was that when this first came up in 2011, when the Republicans first played this card, about half of the voters were concerned about raising the debt limit because when you hear that, it sounds like you run up the credit card and that's a nonstarter.

SIEGEL: And literature from your firm, you have a graphic, don't say this: debt ceiling, raise the debt ceiling, refuse to raise the debt ceiling or irresponsible. Say this, default crisis, avoid a default crisis, default on the debt, catastrophe.

HATTAWAY: Exactly. That last word is an important one because for - emotion works with cognition in our brains to help us with the tension and retention and motivation. So a message has to create emotional reaction for people to notice it or remember it much less be move to act on it.

SIEGEL: So when we heard Democrats talk about avoiding default this time around, that reflected, you say, consulting from firm. What evidence do we have that that actually changed the conversation or the outcome of that conversation?

HATTAWAY: What we did was take another snapshot of the national conversation just within a couple of months. We made the suggestions in May of 2011, looked at it again in July, and the incidences of the use of the term default had shot up by leaders in the administration, Capitol Hill and, importantly, the news media started to use those words and amplify it. What that means is people started to hear it and it affects their opinions.

SIEGEL: You don't think it was just the government shutdown and the unpopularity of that last fall that changed the discussion this time around?

HATTAWAY: Sure, absolutely. I'm sure that contributed to it. But if the Democrats aren't talking about default, it's really not going to be on the public's minds. And I guarantee you, if the polls hadn't changed around the issue of default, I'm sure the Republicans would be trying to extract concessions as we speak.

SIEGEL: Now, you tell the Democrats: Don't talk about raising the debt ceiling. You also said, don't say irresponsible. What was the matter with them using the word irresponsible?

HATTAWAY: It's too boring. Irresponsible does not create an emotional reaction. It's true that defaulting on the debt would be irresponsible. But look how the word catastrophe works and also the word default. Default is a meaningful word to people because if you default on your mortgage, it's a catastrophe for your family. So it's meaningful to people.

SIEGEL: We don't want to be a deadbeat country, you're telling me.

HATTAWAY: Exactly.

SIEGEL: What's a good example of Republicans getting the upper hand by a choice of a word?

HATTAWAY: Oh, there's a classic example, when the Republicans stopped calling the estate tax the estate tax and began calling it the death tax.

SIEGEL: The death tax, yes.

HATTAWAY: That was the death knell for the estate tax.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That - and they won the battle there.

HATTAWAY: Absolutely. A turn of phrase changed it from, oh, that's taxing rich people who live on estates, to taxing everybody when they died. That's not accurate, but that's what it sounds like.

SIEGEL: Well, looking ahead, is there a subject where you think there could be some very important vocabulary shifts that might alter the outcome?

HATTAWAY: It is really important, I think, in the immigration debate. With immigration, you're talking about people. And the term undocumented immigrant is often used - undocumented used as a euphemism for illegal immigrant. We recommend people to call them aspiring Americans.

SIEGEL: Aspiring Americans?

HATTAWAY: Well, if you think about it, when somebody comes to America to make a better life for their family and they want to be a citizen, that's literally what they are aspiring to be. They're aspiring to take the oath of citizenship. So it's what we call an aspirational phrase, and we think that would be a good term for people to use.

SIEGEL: Doug Hattaway is president of Hattaway Communications. We used to say public relations, actually, didn't we...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...before that word was changed. And his firm advised Democrats to stop saying debt ceiling and instead use the word default. Thanks a lot.

HATTAWAY: Thank you very much.

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