In 1997, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette became the first newspaper in the country to publish a story referencing a new “awareness campaign” helmed by a group calling itself the Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide.

The group warned that this dangerous and potentially fatal chemical was being consumed on a massive scale by the American public, who came into contact with it partly because it was being used as a fire retardant and industrial coolant – and was vital in the production of Styrofoam and the distribution of pesticides.

On its website, the Coalition warned that “DHMO”:

  • was the major component of acid rain.
  • contributed to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • could cause severe burns.
  • was fatal if inhaled.
  • contributed to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerated corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • could cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • had been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients(1)

In short, the chemical sounded terrifying, and the Coalition’s email warnings about its use were widely read and distributed in the early years of the internet.  Yet there was one central, crucial aspect of the whole thing that the thousands of people who forwarded those chain emails about DHMO were missing:

It was all a big joke.

Dihydrogen monoxide, when written using its chemical nomenclature, might have looked a little more familiar to the average reader: H20.  That’s right – all the ruckus over the chemical that was “fatal if inhaled” turned out to be about…water.

  

By now, you might be asking yourself what this fake “awareness effort” has to do with running a civic campaign.  Well, plenty.  Especially if we consider the theme of this month’s piece: words do matter.

Recently, a group working in Pennsylvania’s aging services field was reaching out to state legislators about a bill that they wanted to be passed into law.  In their communication materials, they repeatedly referenced “service coordination” as a vital part of the proposed legislation.  Not being in the aging services field myself, I responded with a firm “huh?” and asked them to clarify.

I was told that “service coordination” referred to efforts to help identify what kind of care the elderly person needed and which organizations in the community could best provide that care.

“Oh, you mean a ‘personal care coordinator,'” I said.  I told them that to me, a service coordinator is someone who takes care of your car at Jiffy Lube.  Nevertheless, it seems that “care coordination” has fallen out of favor in the aging services field.

Unfortunately, one place where that term hadn’t fallen out of favor was in the halls of the Pennsylvania state legislature, where most lawmakers know the concept by the name it’s had for years.  I knew that any communication strategy had to take this into account, or risked being overlooked by legislators for being too full of health care jargon.

“Care” vs. “service”… while the difference may seem small to some, it can mean worlds of difference to others. In short – words really do matter!

I came across another example in the human services field providing early intervention services to infants, toddlers, and at-risk preschoolers.  The good folks in this field kept using the technical term “tracking” to refer to monitoring the progress the kids were making.  Again, I went, “huh?”  Tracking is something UPS does to its packages.  I thought that we should “watch” kids, and “track” packages.

On the opposite side of the coin, my partnership with the Campaign for What Works (click here for more info) has been focused on shaking up a term (“welfare”) that has been thrown around the halls of Congress for time immemorial.  In that case, changing the way we talk about human services is the first step on the road to delivering better human services.

In both cases, the ultimate lesson is this: words do matter.  First, we need to carefully consider our audience.  While “service coordination” may have an obvious meaning to a doctor or hospital administrator, to the layman or the lawmaker, it can sound like a vague, confusing mumbo jumbo.

Secondly, we need to consider the words’ impact: in the case of “welfare,” a word has taken on such a negative connotation that its continued use has actually come to harm the very people it was designed to help.

So in short, choose your words carefully.  At the very least, it might make you feel a little better about downing a tall glass of dihydrogen monoxide tonight.