The rhetoric businesses – including journalism, public relations and marketing – are still adapting to social media, where concepts are becoming obsolete at record pace.
Language experts suggest social media is helping to rapidly define new terms and redefine existing ones. Consequently, entrepreneurs could be forced to part with brands that, over time, contain words that have taken on new, inconvenient meanings.
A couple of years ago, “Provocateur Media” was fun brand that helped position us in the Montreal coms market. It was meant to convey only that we were in the business of provoking conversation.
Fast forward to 2018, mid-way though President Donald Trump’s first term, and somehow, white supremacists have been granted ample space to provoke international media conversations. As I’ve written recently, the provocateur-president has changed web content from a technical standpoint (and communicators must drastically adapt their strategies) but has also in a way ruined the concept of provoking, and shock value.
The idea of associating our venture with these hate-mongering provocateurs who don’t understand the meaning of the word or the toxicity of their provocations quickly became uncomfortable.
Last April, I logged on to Netflix and watched Get Me Roger Stone in horror, a documentary about one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The film begins with Stone introducing himself: “My name is Roger Stone and I am an agent provocateur.”
“Those who say I have no principles are bitter losers,” Stone says in the film. Needless to say, this sort of thoughtless, reckless provocateur never provided us with any inspiration.
After having considered a rebrand for a couple of years, at that moment, it became crystal clear the change was overdue. We’re a nonpartisan, private sector PR consultancy and web content firm, not the leaders of an insurgent political movement. The rebranding conversation with my team began the next morning.
In 2011, Provocateur began specializing in PR stunts; the name felt right and peers loved it. The word is also French in origin and worked in both languages, a key factor for a Quebec-based business.
(Anglo-Quebecers will appreciate that we always insisted on pronouncing “provocateur” à la française, not the cringeworthy standard Anglo variation that ends in “oor”.)
In recent years, “provocateur” started to become popular in xenophobic far-right circles; sensationalist broadcaster Piers Morgan may or may not be launching a fragrance called Provocateur. The term “right-wing provocateur” is commonplace in media when the literal definition is simply “one who provokes.”
The term is also frequently used interchangeably with “agent provocateur,” someone who, as per the Cambridge English dictionary, “intentionally encourages people to do something illegal so that they can be caught,” a clandestine infiltrator of an organization or movement.
There is no political orientation implied with “provocateur” but I wasn’t about to embark on a futile campaign to convince the alt-right Internet of that.
(Also, lingerie company Agent Provocateur was hindering our SEO.)
Not only has social media and the Trump clan contributed to poisoning a perfectly reasonable, beautiful French word, but an entire concept. Once the leader of the so-called free world flippantly threatens nuclear war with a tweet, I think it’s safe to say that political provocation has reached new levels of absurdity and meaninglessness.
The manic social media hatemongers who support Trump have helped make social media platforms toxic, anxiety-producing cesspools that ordinary apolitical people are beginning to shy away from in droves. Provocation, in the modern reductive Internet sense, is jumping the shark; good content must be about more than simply gaining attention for a moment.
With Provocateur Media, we attempted to “start constructive conversations” in media spaces but we observed the word began to evoke actions and emotions that were anything but constructive. The rhetoric industries are changing rapidly. Don’t repeat our mistake: If your business is largely Internet-based and the Internet is contributing to redefining its image in ways you didn’t expect, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and try a different look.
The Internet may be devouring good words at an alarming rate, but it is also fertile ground for new concepts. Relevance matters in branding, and your evolution matters for your brand.
Dan Delmar is managing partner, public relations with TNKR Media and contributor to Postmedia newspapers and Bell Media radio stations in Montréal and Toronto, Canada.