< Back to Blog

Let’s face it: words matter. It’s a point that I emphasize whenever I coach clients on sound bites to use during media interviews or help them prepare a presentation.

There’s often a better word to describe the exact same thing. Here are some examples from one of my training decks:

– death tax vs. estate tax
– escalation vs. surge
– out-of-state garbage vs. regional waste
– complicated vs. complex
– bailout vs. recovery plan
– crisis vs. extraordinary events

See what I mean?

I thought a lot about certain word choices last week when I was in Brussels to attend the AidEx 2018 conference.

Well, one word in particular: refugee.

It’s a word that has been top-of-mind for me lately, particularly since I was tapped by Porter Novelli this year to help promote the work of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a remarkable international NGO providing emergency aid and long-term assistance to those displaced by war, persecution or natural disaster.

Still, despite my work in the sector and having taken several trips to Europe since the Syrian crisis began, I was startled to find so many refugees on the streets of Brussels.

However, once inside the exclusive halls of AidEx, all the in-depth events and exhibits focused on refugees had a far less visceral impact on me.

Maybe that’s to be expected. But I keep thinking about how our experience of an issue – whether through messaging and positioning or delivery – shapes our reaction to it.

For instance, the CEO of an organization providing housing solutions for displaced communities told me at AidEx that he often hears people using the words “refugees” and “immigrants” interchangeably – and that it’s a big deterrent to fundraising, particularly where he lives in the U.S. where anti-immigration feelings are high.

I wasn’t surprised. I even found myself having to educate some journalists on this distinction when pitching the IRC this year. Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. (Officially, a “refugee” crosses an international border; the tens of millions of people who must flee their homes for the very same reasons but remain within their own country are considered “internally displaced” and not eligible for protection under the international system as refugees.)

An immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there. (Thanks to the IRC for this perfectly succinct description.) A migrant is similar but rather moves from place to place due to economic reasons, usually looking for seasonal work.

But confusion and misuse with these various terms abounds. Take, for example, the so-called “migrant caravan” that has dominated U.S. news in recent months. According to the IRC, many of these individuals from Central America “are in fact asylum seekers, not migrants. They have a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return home.” (An asylum seeker is someone whose claim for refugee status has yet to be determined legally.)

What do we do when words alone don’t communicate their intended meaning? It’s not always as straightforward as identifying new words, particularly in an international context with different languages and legally sanctioned definitions.

Identifying new communication strategies can help. For instance, the Danish Red Cross was at AidEx to demonstrate their new virtual reality technology that simulates the experience of living in a refugee camp.

But the greater challenge is getting people to understand why it is important to help refugees and then act. The “r” word alone doesn’t fully communicate that refugees used to be regular, proud citizens. That they had jobs and money and homes and communities to call their own. But tragedy struck. And they are now in this horrible predicament.

Last spring, the IRC commissioned a survey of Americans’ views on refugees and found that two-thirds of Americans would expect Canada or Mexico to welcome them if there was a conflict in the U.S. that would force residents to flee.

In our relatively short lifetimes, it is hard to imagine such an event happening in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible here or anywhere else at any time.

And due to the nature of today’s conflicts, refugees are remaining displaced longer than ever before – 26 years on average, according to some agencies. And this will result in long-lasting, devastating impacts not only on their lives and the lives of their children but on our planet as a whole.

In one AidEx session, the deputy head of the Ugandan Mission to the European Union shared that every refugee family currently living in Uganda uses approximately half a tree each day for cooking.

“What happens when Uganda has no more trees?” he asked.

The answers aren’t always clear. But we need to keep asking the questions that lead to more communication and better solutions.