It's one of the most fundamental principles of PR best practices: Don't insult your audience.
So it stands to reason that PR pros communicating to older adults should be conducting autopsies of their press releases, media pitches, blog posts and other written copy after a recent survey revealed that nearly six out of 10 adults over 65 take offense to the word "elderly."
The word is splashed all over the web and ad copy and even used in the official business name of many retirement homes, products and organizations geared toward the 65+ demographic.
Meanwhile, the survey, which was conducted by MedicareAdvantage.com, revealed that the word "senior" is offensive to fewer than 1 in 5 adults over 65. And this after years of PR professionals cautiously navigating around that term.
The fluidity of language
It's vital for PR professionals to stay current with preferred terminology. Language is fluid, and when the "Elderly Housing Development & Operations Corporation" was founded in 2010, they probably didn't think twice about the name of their organization.
Even the "American Geriatrics Society" might want to tread lightly; according to the survey two out of every three older adults find "geriatric" to be offensive, despite the term being more clinical in nature.
Society is an adaptive place if nothing else, particularly during the woke revolution. The Grammys recently announced it will stop using the term "urban" for certain award categories. The NFL's Washington Redskins finally dropped their longtime moniker after years of criticism. And brands like Land O' Lakes, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's have undergone recent rebranding of their products.
Terms surrounding race and ethnicity aren't the only words that PR pros must be mindful of. Words to describe disabilities, income levels, education, body types and, of course, age are just as subject to offensiveness and the corresponding bad PR.
PR pros should take heed of the adaptations of the corporate world. After all, a PR professional speaking on behalf of a company or organization can quickly alienate their audience with just a few overlooked keystrokes.
The things we find offensive today are different than those of yesteryear, and the future will only uncover more terms that slip under our radar today. That's why asking questions like the ones in this survey serve a common good. And it's why PR pros would be wise to stay up-to-date on the answers.
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a fascinating study in 2016 that examined the changes in descriptive terms for older people in medical literature over the past 65 years.
The study revealed how the use of terms like "elderly," "aged," "older" and "geriatric" have fluctuated over the years, and the discussion section of the study left us with one very good (if not slightly ironic) piece of advice:
"Never be the first to use a new descriptive term for older people nor the last to give up an old one."
Christian Worstell is a licensed insurance agent and a senior staff writer for MedicareAdvantage.com.