It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

If you’ve ever spent any significant amount of time around a PR person, journalist or anyone else who writes for the media, you may have heard of AP style. It stands for “Associated Press” style, and it’s meant to guide media writers through some of the more tricky writing rules, from hyphens to state abbreviations.

AP style also addresses how to say some things. One example I remember from college is that “firefighter” is the preferred term, not “fireman.” This is because someone fighting fires may be a woman.

A while back, the AP stylebook online emailed a few updates it was making in 2013. The updates were not exactly light reading – one related to illegal immigration, and another specified when to use homicide so as not to accuse a suspect of murder before he or she has been convicted. While no one gets excited about these topics, they’re often necessary in our world. That got me thinking about the importance of how you say something in everyday life and how it can shape perception of your brand or your personality.

The change to the “illegal immigration” entry was to drop the word “illegal” when describing a person. The rationale is that an action can be illegal, but a person is not illegal. This entry, along with the homicide entry, focuses almost exclusively on the how. How does the word “murder” sound when used in a story about a suspect who has not yet been convicted? (It makes him/her sound guilty.) How does the word “illegal” sound when describing a person? (Not good. The person committed an illegal act, but he or she is not inherently illegal.)

The principle is not exclusive to this AP style change. We discuss it all the time at Obsidian. Sometimes companies have the unfortunate task of breaking bad news, and sometimes the nature of a brand’s competitive landscape calls for an adjustment in their language or presentation. You’ve probably heard of a “compliment sandwich.” Basically, it’s a faulty idea that if you start and end with a compliment, you can throw the bad news in the middle, and it’s possible no one will notice. Paula Abdul used to do it all the time on American Idol. She would start by telling the contestant how wonderful he or she looked, then follow up with a negative review of the performance. It never worked.

Be honest about things. Don’t try to hide the negative, just look for a better how. You might be surprised about how the reactions change.