September 29, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Communications and language: PR pros adapt to generational differences

Communications and language: PR pros adapt to generational differences

During a recent #MeasurePR chat about financial communications and investor relations practices within PR, one of the panelists in the chat noted that generational differences in language can present a challenge for PR pros.

A challenge that is growing

This is an understandable hurdle, particularly within financial comms where PR professionals need to strike a balance between being conversational enough to communicate effectively with millennials, but maintain the professional tone that boomers expect from anyone handling, managing, or communicating about money.

This is also a challenge for internal comms professionals—perhaps even more so than financial comms. While financial communications can target messages fairly easily based on a topic—for example, communications topics of “starting to build retirement savings” versus “what you need to know in retirement” are obviously going to be picked up by different audiences—internal communications within a company are going to be harder to tailor by generational differences.

Here are some things to remember when communicating with generationally diverse audiences:

  • Use a variety of communication types to reach your target audiences—millennials like shorter formats using less formal language, while boomers prefer detail and formal tones (and the much-ignored Gen Xers will take whatever they are given…).
  • For internal communications, consider what is being discussed, and make sure the language matches the content. Regardless of the age of your target audience, it’s best to steer clear of sarcasm, snark, or tongue-in-cheek phrasing when it comes to serious material, such as health care options, life insurance, or 401(k) planning.
  • On the other hand, plain-language and easy-to-understand writing is always appropriate. Start with the basics and need-to-know information, and then provide detail for those who want it.
  • Familiarize yourself with marketing research that reveals how each generation responds to messaging—Younger generations, such as Gen Z and millennials, are more likely to respond to language that is inclusive. GenX is pretty cynical and responds best to direct language. Boomers dislike absolutes. While these are all fairly broad generalizations, there’s a reason you keep hearing these same things: research has demonstrated these generalizations are reasonably accurate when it comes to marketing, so it makes sense to bear this in mind when crafting communications.

Generational attributes affect language used

The Workflow Management Coalition has a fascinating and detailed chart on their website that dives into key attributes of each generation. (The chart only goes through Gen Y/Millennials, so no Gen Z information, unfortunately. There is no date on the chart, but there are some clues it might be a bit dated.) The chart lists everything from the historical influences that shaped each generation to their core values, work ethic, and even how they deal with money. Charts like this are abundant on the internet, and can be used as a jumping-off point when designing communications materials for multi-generational audiences.

One benefit to having multiple platforms at hand is the ability to highly target messaging, and that allows communicators to precisely choose the language they use for each audience. You can write the detailed, formal blog post and point boomers and GenX’ers to that piece, while serving up more informal messages via Instagram to millennials, and then use Facebook’s targeting to choose which versions you want to go to each audience on that platform. You can also target videos to each audience with ease.

Inter-office dialogue is just as much of a challenge as external

The communications challenges within an office that has multigenerational members generally comes from how employees and managers communicate with one another, rather than an inability to properly use appropriate language. Problems arise when individual expectations of how communications should be handled aren’t met.

These problems can escalate quickly, so managers should be clear about expectations. Millennials—again, broadly speaking—prefer shorter communications, but this can sometimes backfire. Knowing when it’s okay to text or message a response versus responding by writing an email (with complete sentences, correct punctuation and spelling), or even picking up the phone, should be asked and answered. For all parties, don’t assume that your favored way of responding will be the manner in which you receive a response.

Although this is more of an HR issue than a PR one, the practices do intersect with one another when it comes to communicating within an organization. Language and method of conveyance, formal or informal tone—all of these factors come together when communicating across generational divides, whether it happens within an organization or if it’s part of a public relations program.

HR functions can overlap with communications functions within a company, so whether it’s a formal division of labor between the two groups that needs to be discussed, or an ongoing informal dialogue, HR and PR should combine forces to address this office need.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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