Thinkpiece: What does it mean for Corporate America when the bureaucrats start giving us English lessons?

You wouldn’t think the federal government would have much to teach Corporate America about plain English.

You wouldn’t think the federal government would have much to teach Corporate America about plain English.

You wouldn’t think the federal government would have much to teach

Corporate America about plain English.



Think again. It’s been over a year since the US Securities and Exchange

Commission made straight talk the law of the land for public companies

with adoption of its ’Plain English Rule.’ And the busy bureaucrats in

the SEC Division of Corporation Finance have apparently seen their share

of bad writing in documents filed with the nation’s top corporate

regulator.



We know this because, after wading through tens of thousands of

prospectuses and other documents subject to the new rule, the

bureaucrats have tapped out their own ’Guide to Bad Corporate

Writing.’



OK - so the bureaucrats lack the muse for such a name. Instead, in a

missive titled ’Updated Staff Legal Bulletin No. 7’

(http://www.sec.gov/offices/corpfin/cfslb7a.htm), the bureaucrats take

Corporate America to task, sharing some of the worst offenses against

plain English.



’Now that the staff has gained several months’ experience issuing plain

English comments,’ Legal Bulletin No. 7 begins, ’we thought it would be

helpful to list the comments we have been issuing most frequently. By

alerting issuers to these comments before they file their next

registration statement, we hope to enable them to avoid receiving these

comments.’



Let’s restate that in plain English: Read this bulletin before you file

with the SEC and before you risk corporate embarrassment (or CEO wrath)

for prose in your registration filings that is so confusing even a

trained team of bureaucrats would reject it.



The SEC Plain English Rule, adopted Oct. 1, 1998, has at its heart a

premise that should be dear to every public relations professional: the

best communication is clear communication.



Public relations professionals should adopt this same cause in the guise

of doing their job: Providing clear, consistent communication of the

strategic vision, priorities and (yes) financial results of the public

companies they serve.



What’s the risk of failing to apply the plain English test? The humbling

prospect of being edited at the hands of bureaucrats trained to hunt not

for misstatements of financial fact, but for ’short sentences,’

’definite, concrete, everyday language,’ and that favorite of high

school English teachers everywhere: ’active voice.’ So what’s a public

relations professional to do if he or she intends to avoid the federal

language police? Take a few pointers from the bureaucrats. Communicate

clearly. And talk to the folks in investor relations and legal about

active voice.



- Paul Furiga is a vice president at Ketchum Pittsburgh



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