Don’t think that at any moment your organization is just seconds away from a major reputational crisis? Then you haven’t been paying attention recently. Even the most debonair, media-coached front man can land your company in crisis with a simple linguistic slip up. Case in point: Emmanuel Macron, the young, telegenic, highly charismatic president of France.
Recently, Macron ventured to Australia for an official state visit with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. At the end of a joint news conference with Turnbull, Macron, a fluent English speaker, turned to thank his Australian host for the warm welcome.
Being the gallant French statesman, Macron also wanted to throw in a compliment for Lucy Turnbull, the Prime Minister’s wife. Things didn’t go quite expected to plan, with the President raising eyebrows by calling Lucy Turnbull “delicious.” Comment?
Of course, the President’s comment went instantly viral – we’re writing about it after all – sparking some culinary hot takes on social media and write-ups in the Australian and international press. Some observers even likened the gaffe to JFK’s during his iconic declaration, Ich bin ein Berliner, which unfortunately translates more precisely to “I am a jam doughnut” than “I am (also) a Berliner.” Not exactly the kind of rhetorical inspiration that helps defeat global tyranny.
Like JFK, Macron made a simple translation error. You see the French word délicieux doesn’t just translate to delicious but also delightful, far more appropriate in the context of high diplomacy.
Ultimately, Macron’s translation flap proved harmless enough. As of now, Franco-Australian comity remains intact. But the larger moral is that even the savviest, media-trained CEOs, operating in the most controlled media environments, can make the occasional newsworthy gaffe. Your organization better be ready to deal with the crisis fallout.
And that goes double for heads of state and companies who’re purposefully looking to make an impact with their words – just not trigger World War III. Who can forget President Trump’s and Kim Jong Un’s months-long war of words that played out over North Korean state media, international social media, and even in the halls of the United Nations General Assembly? The insult-laden clash that reintroduced us to the relatively archaic “dotard,” sent David Bowie’s 1972 classic “Rocket Man” shooting back up the charts, and brought us that much closer to nuclear annihilation.
Suffice it to say, language matters. Whether we’re gaffe-prone or just trying to land a well-timed barb, our words have unintended consequences.
Photo by Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59442545 / Edited from original to include thought bubble & cake.