Seriously, folks!

I have on occasion advised spokespersons that they ought to remove the sentence, "We take [some issue] very seriously" from their quiver of PR speaking points. I explain that just about everyone confronted by an issue these days claims to take it "very seriously," even when they obviously don't, to the point where the phrase just doesn't mean anything any more. Even when I explain, I find myself confronted with looks of incomprehension. It seems like it just doesn't compute.

To demonstrate the point I took a run through Google News to see if I could come up with some examples of what I'm talking about. I had to stop before I finished, as there were just too many, even though Google News only goes back a couple of weeks. Here they are:

  • The Fiesta Bowl was in danger of losing its status as an official Bowl game in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) run by the NCAA over some misconduct I didn't bother to continue reading long enough to discover. "The BCS group takes this matter very seriously and will consider whether they (Fiesta Bowl) keep a BCS bowl game," says the BCS.
  • The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) recovered nearly $4 million in fraudulently obtained Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits in 2010, the commission recently reported. "Preserving our employer-paid Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund for those who are legitimately due its benefits is a task we take very seriously," said TWC Chairman Tom Pauken.
  • From the Phillippine Star: The stories you've been hearing are true. Chuck is the new deli king. At Chuck's Deli, sandwiches are taken very seriously.
  • Andy Shattuck was resigning his job as coach of the Clinton High School football team in Tennessee. "I take my (social studies) teaching job very seriously, and I take my family very seriously," he said.
  • From Hollywood.com: ...since she's in the event planning business, Marysol took the meal very seriously.
  • In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a couple of cops are accused of obtaining steroids for personal use. "I take very seriously any allegation that a law enforcement officer has broached the public trust by engaging in criminal activity, and I take just as seriously the reputation of all of the rest of us in law enforcement who honor that trust and continue to guard the public with integrity," says county DA David Capeless.
  • MP Tony Clement was explaining to the Muskoka area media why the Auditor General's report about G8 and G20 spending would be very useful, but only after the election, and certainly not while the election was underway. "We take all these things very seriously and the next time Canada is hosting an international event hopefully we will have learned some things," he said.
  • Officials in Cardiff were concerned that Somali taxi drivers are chewing khat to keep themselves awake on long shifts. "I'm aware some taxi drivers use the drug to stay awake so they can work longer hours or through the night, and we take the matter very seriously," says Butetown PCSO Neil Crowley.
  • Eastern Kentucky University was on a safety alert, in response to an assault on a woman. "Any time we have a student who comes to the EKU Police to report something, perhaps serious, has occurred, we do take them all very serious," EKU Spokesperson Marc Whitt said.
  • In a statement released on March 18 by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), company boss Masataka Shimizu said they were taking the Fukushima nuclear crisis "very seriously."
  • An elderly man assaulted another in a Vancouver hospital. "We take this type of thing very seriously," said hospital spokesperson Anna Marie D'Angelo. "We are thankful that the outcome was not worse and we are reviewing all our procedures as to what happened."
  • Federal authorities in Los Angeles were investigating a denial-of-service attack on TelePacific's "SmartVoice" service. TelePacific President and CEO Dick Jalkut wrote a letter to SmartVoice customers, in which he said, "We take this attack on our network very seriously, and although by its nature cyber-terrorism is unpredictable and difficult to control, we have taken and will continue to take every step possible to shore up our defenses and ensure the integrity of our systems."
  • Northampton rugby full-back Ben Foden was arrested on suspicion of "criminal damage" to a taxi. Northampton issued a statement saying the the club had launched their own inquiry and that they took the allegations very seriously.
  • The British Department for Transport (DfT) was inquiring into a fake bomb found on a cargo aircraft flying from the UK to Turkey fourteen days before. The DfT said they would take this matter "very seriously."
  • Sean McPherson had been named the new men's soccer head coach at the Baptist Bible College in Abington, Wyoming. "I take very seriously the role of helping each player appreciate the unique relationship between being an athlete striving to win and being an ambassador of Jesus Christ," said McPherson.
  • Riccardo Muti, 69-year-old music director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, suffered facial fractures when he fell from the podium at a CSO rehearsal. He was back on the job, but for those worried he was doing too much too soon, he said he's been taking his doctors' instructions "very seriously."
  • In Belfast, online game Moshi Monsters is disturbed by reports that a pedophile targetted an eight-year-old playing the game. Online safety expert Rebecca Newton said they take the matter "very seriously," adding, "We are currently investigating this claim."
  • Ottawa's Daniel Thompson has been a nude model for art classes for the past 12 years. "I approach modelling in the same way that I used to approach competitive rowing," says Thompson, 32. "I take it very seriously and I bring a lot of discipline to it."
  • Vancouverite Don Chapman has been fighting for changes to the citizenship laws. He's a "lost Canadian," someone who lost his citizenship by being out of country for too long under the rules in existence during the late 40s to mid-70s. He's lobbied his MP, George Weston, several times on the issue but has been "ignored." Weston says that's not true. "Citizenship is something I take very seriously."
  • In Fort Lee, NJ, five teenagers were arrested and left in a locked van for 14 hours. Spokesperson Cohen told local media that the department is treating the matter "very seriously" and will mete out punishment to whomever (sic) is responsible.
  • Before the opposition parties brought down the federal government, Michael Ignatieff was asked if his motion on the Friday in question would include lack of confidence. Though he didn't really answer the question, he said, "We take the issue of contempt of Parliament and disrespect for our institutions very, very seriously."
  • In Burton, UK, a man stabbed another man in the heart outside a nightclub. When the attacker was found guilty of murder, local police commander Stephen Burton (?) said, "We take violence very seriously and incidents such as this are, thankfully, extremely rare."
  • The Canadian Federation of Independent Business was planning a major campaign to urge consumers to stop using credit cards, which cost merchants up to $4.5 billion a year in processing fees, and instead to use cash or debit cards. Visa Canada assures us they don't expect the campaign to have a negative impact on its business. "We take their concerns very seriously but we believe the enthusiasm with which consumers and merchants have embraced electronic payment systems will continue," said Mike Bradley, Visa Canada's head of products.
  • The CRTC ruled in October, 2009, that Globalive was not Canadian enough and foreign ownership rules applied, preventing the Toronto-based company from starting up. "We take this decision very seriously," says Tony Clement.
  • In a media release responding to criticisms that their drug Makena (use unclear from release) is too expensive, Ther-Rx Corporation "takes very seriously the public concerns raised regarding the list price of Makena."
  • A Scouts Canada volunteer has been charged with sexually assaulting two 14-year-old girls during a camping trip. "We're very deeply concerned and very shocked to hear this," said Scouts Canada spokeswoman Susie Mackie. "It's something we take very seriously because our first priority is always the safety and well-being of the youth who attend any of our scouting events," she said.

These should be enough to demonstrate that the meaning contained in the phrase "very seriously" has been beaten badly, and lies injured, near death, having been forced to serve too many masters.

Why would a Japanese official think we need to hear they take nuclear crises "very seriously?" They'd better. (To be fair, there might have been a faulty translation involved.) While I'm glad police in the UK take mayhem and murder seriously, shouldn't we be entitled to expect they will? Notice that the Visa Canada spokesperson says in one clause that they take it seriously, and in the following one why they don't really need to.

Usually the statement that something is taken seriously doesn't add anything to what is being said. Sometimes it raises suspicion, especially when it's a matter that's obviously serious (murder, nuclear crises, targetting children). Going to the trouble of saying you take it seriously alerts your public that you don't, in much the same way as you can't really know something's true until it's been officially denied.

When a matter is obviously serious, you don't need to say so. If you must, you're better off saying, "This is a very serious matter, obviously, and we're doing [list of actions] to deal with it." Notice that the TelePacific CEO's statement would actually have been more effective without the "very seriously" with which he leads it off.

There must be PR professionals out there telling people, "Now, remember, whatever you say you must say you're taking this very, very seriously." Well, that advice is well past its "best by" date. Worse, it's lazy PR.

Don't tell us you're taking it seriously, show us, by telling us what you're doing to address the seriousness of the situation. The only people who should be saying they're taking things seriously are people who are doing things not normally taken seriously, like sandwich-making and posing in the nude.

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