"Fiscal cliff" as Political Rhetoric

caution-fiscal-cliff-aheadThis past week, NPR’s Edward Schumacher-Matos asked, “Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? And who is going over it? Seldom has a popular metaphor been so overworked and been so wrong, and yet curiously been seen by so many as somehow favoring the other political side.”  Great Britain’s U.S. edition of The Guardian notes, “The fiscal cliff is the unfortunate yet necessary term that many news organizations and businesses are saddled with for the duration of the debate…A growing group of media – and media-savvy – dissidents are backing away from the term.”  Political comedian Bill Maher tweeted, “Media, pls stop using term ‘fiscal cliff’, when America is plunged into the unimaginable hell known as the Clinton tax rates.”

Why this controversy over two words used to describe what the U.S. government may face on January 1? That’s when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect, bringing massive budget cuts and significant tax increases–unless Congress and the president can cut a deal to avoid such drastic measures.  The media seized upon the term after Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke first used it in February when he described that “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” would take place on the first of the year.

When I think “fiscal cliff,” I picture a plunge into an abyss of economic disaster.  Yet everyone agrees that this wouldn’t happen on New Year’s Day even if no agreement is reached by then.  Whatever the negative effects on our economy, they would be slow to happen and would likely be eased by policy-making after the deadline.

Those in the media are linking everything from Wall Street’s performance to consumer confidence polls to the looming “fiscal cliff.”  But there is some danger in using words that scare people.  Politicians, organizations and the media do this quite often to achieve a desired result.  Words are the PR person’s most significant tool, and they can be used well — or abused.  There are ethical questions involved in using words that frighten. The “fiscal cliff” maybe be counted among them.  Your thoughts?

16 thoughts on “"Fiscal cliff" as Political Rhetoric

  1. publicrelationspro

    Personally, I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that we are unable to come to an agreement about the fiscal cliff. Regardless of whether you’re a republican or a democrat, the concern should not be about who “wins”, it should be about the well-being of the country. The country needs to come to a resolution and the fact that we have the senate and HOR seems useless, seeing how they can’t manage to get anything done.

  2. Rebecca Wolfe

    Public Relations professionals have lists of tactics they use to persuade/manipulate their audiences, fear definitely being one of them. They are trying to scare people about the future, instead of suggesting ways to help the present situation. I always think it is good when celebrities like the ones you mentioned call them out on their tactics. That term does not sound pro-active at all, it sounds like that is what they want for the people, for them to go into a “fiscal cliff”…how delightful.

  3. klevick1206

    I believe that the more we talk about a significant issue that will affect the most people, the more people will get scared. The term “fiscal cliff” does scare me. Without knowing much about the situation at first, just hearing fiscal cliff makes me think that our economy and country is at the edge of the cliff and can fall off any minute.

  4. Taylor Albright

    When discussing an important issue the use of words are very important. When hearing the words “fiscal cliff” it does seem scary and as if I were to walk of a cliff and everything would end. The choice of words is something that can make things sound either less scary/less intense, or very scary/more intense. In this case it definitely did the latter. Like Kerry mentioned to someone like me, hearing those words in the same context with government or taxes, it is very scary to someone who is just getting out of college and about to enter that world.

  5. Kerry Kiddoo

    It is true that words in this sense can be viewed as a scare tactic. For those who are not as aware of such terms, myself included, picture us, as you said, plunging off a cliff into the abyss. This is certainly posing concern, especially for myself and classmates who are going to be entering the real world in a few short months. PR does use words as one of its most effective tools, but using words that people may not relate to or understand could throw readers off track or give them the wrong idea. Therefore, before jumping to the worst conclusion possible associated with that word, we, as well as the government, should educate ourselves and the public on the severity of the word itself.

  6. brittanywalsh

    The phrase “fiscal cliff” seems extremely intimidating to the public. However, the PR people behind this phrase are using it to deliver a specific message to their audience. Although a “scare” tactic is not something I advocate, it seems to me that using an intense metaphor has gotten people to pay attention and maybe even do some research. I believe it is the responsibility of the people to question the news and forms of public opinion.

  7. Rachel

    I hadn’t really understood what the “fiscal cliff” even meant before. After reading, I believe there is some need for people to know the terms of what could be upcoming disaster, it probably would have been better to scare people with “Fiscal Cliff” thoughts before elections when people also are considering senate candidates. Its usage now seems too much, too late. At this point, there’s nothing we can do. Is ignorance really bliss? Or just a breath before a steep drop from a financial canyon we’ve dug beneath ourselves?

  8. Michelle Soslowitz

    I think that it’s true that words can be powerful and affect the way people thing. When hearing “Fiscal cliff” people freak out because it sounds like the economy is about to fall off this imaginary cliff on a mountain and chaos will erupt from it. I’m sure there are probably other ways to phrase it to get the public to understand what is going on and to ensure them that there is no need to panic. Most people don’t even know what the “fiscal cliff” is but just hearing it sounds terrifying to them. I agree with what Jackie said with it happening all the time with “climate change” vs. “global warming” and “estate tax” vs “death tax”, it’s all a matter of how you phrase it to get people to understand without causing fear. Fear is the greatest thing that can persuade the public and it’s not a good idea to use terms that will turn on these feelings. The media needs to understand that the public needs to hear words that they will understand and feel connected with.

  9. Nicole Chiarella

    It will be the fiscal cliff until someone comes up with a different term that seems more suitable and people react better to. Look at “climate change” or “global warming” they both mean the same thing but some may say “climate change” does not sound as harsh as “global warming.” I think word choice is extremely important, it can shape the direction in which a discussion will go.

  10. Jon Fisco

    I think this shows just how important word choice can really be. A misuse of a term here or there can send people into a panic and cause a serious uproar. By screwing up a couple of sentences people will negate the entire story in favor of focusing on the one or two words that offend, hurt, or scare. It’s a delicate business and with a society that is prone to hyperbole it’s tough to not have people who are going to use words that deliver ultimatums, or at the very least produce incorrect mental images.

  11. Nicole Risell

    I think this phrase has only resulted in widespread panic. I think people are panicking about it, but they don’t really know what the phrase means. If the phrase was explained as massive budget cuts and increased taxes, it would get people’s attention, but not as much attention as “fiscal cliff” gets, which I think was the purpose. I believe using this phrase may have been part of a plan to get people to wake up and become aware of this looming event, but it has just resulted in confusion and a bit of hysteria.

  12. Chloe Lambros

    I agree with Leia as she notes that “the intangible fiscal cliff that seems to be occupying much of media attention of late fits in with the time honored tradition of mass media over exaggeration.” I feel as though her thoughts are very similar to mine about this given topic as she has taken the words right out of my mouth. The definition of the term “fiscal cliff” highlights the onundrum that the U.S. government will face. This enforces panic, as Leia also makes note of, in readers and various audiences. I am not sure what to predict since, in all honesty, I am not an expert on the subject matter. But, Leia could be right “that in coming weeks, […] the phrase “fiscal cliff” will become mocked, as people begin to realize how silly it is.” The term is almost used as a defense mechanism to scare those off. With that said, the idea of using certain words in PR have many affects that are not always recognizable. Word choice is effective and significant in PR and should be looked at carefully. The proper choice of words should communicate the proper message.

  13. Leia Schultz

    The intangible “fiscal cliff” that seems to be occupying much of media attention of late fits in with the time honored tradition of mass media over exaggeration. Rather than offer more composed and rational descriptions of the economic condition of this nation, the term “fiscal cliff” serves to induce trepidation – even panic – in eager audiences. The term does suggest a financial apocalypse that will strike this country if congress fails to reach an agreement. I predict that in coming weeks, using the phrase “fiscal cliff” will become mocked, as people begin to realize how silly it is. While fear-inducing rhetoric can warrant some success in the short-term, it is rare that such terms hold their own when people really start considering what they are representing.

  14. Bert Cunningham

    The ethics of how words are used by the media and PRPros has long been a subject of debate, especially when seeking the right metaphor to describe a complex issue in just a few words or sound bite. Noted political pollster Frank Luntz authored a book in ’07 entitled: “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” In it he states: “How your words are understood is strongly influenced by the experiences and biases of the listener [reader} — and you take things for granted about those experiences and biases at your own peril.” Bernanke’s “fiscal cliff” had a specific meaning and purpose when first expressed. Others repurposed the term to convey messages. Ultimately, it’s up to the listener or reader to determine what’s fact and what’s fiction to fully understand what’s at issue. My point: PRPros have an ethical/moral obligation to use metaphors accurately; publics have an ethical/moral obligation to accurately understand them.

  15. jackiezupo

    The use of words is everything when talking about a certain issue. Fiscal cliff sounds scar, its almost as if you walk off a cliff and your life is over once it happens. This happens all the time where terms different words are used to give a different effect. For example instead of “global warming” newspaper print “climate change”. In that example it is to make global warming sound less scary. Another example is instead of saying “estate tax” newspapers print “death tax”. Obviously ethical issues arise when having a play on words with issues and there is a thin line. I personally don’t think it is right to use words to scare people but it is also the publics duty to educate themselves on what these terms truly mean.


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