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The ESG Review: Is the media waking up on woke?

Remember the first time you heard the word woke, in a non-sleep context?

It probably took a little while to sink in, and when you first talked about it with someone you probably contemplated the breadth of its intended meaning, and thought about stories in the spotlight that were clear examples of it.

Fast forward a few years, and today some sections of the media are full of the word, to the point that using it in a headline seems to have become a form of clickbait. Yes, like with this piece.

In the past week, there seems to have been some soul-searching over the word woke though. More journalists have begun to question the way it is often now used as a badge for political perspectives and values, rather than its original (presumed) intended use as catch-all for an eyes-wide-open awareness of social problems and action for change.

Definitions are hard to come by. The Merriam Webster dictionary calls it a chiefly US slang word that means “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”.

The Oxford English Dictionary added its own definition in 2017, stating that ""By the mid-20th century, woke had been extended figuratively to refer to being 'aware' or 'well informed' in a political or cultural sense." The definition is "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". Which is likely not how most people, particularly those working in communications, would define it.

This week saw, shockingly, a Fox News anchor stating that woke shouldn’t be defined, but “it could be a feeling, it could be a sense’, as covered by The Independent.

Meanwhile, an opinion piece in The Sun blasted that the UK is now “run by a ‘New Elite’ of radical woke middle-class liberals completely out of step with the public “, alongside pictures of Gary Lineker and Emily Maitlis.

And the Daily Mail (yes, I mainly looked at right-leaning media) thought that “The Guardian wants to drag us all into its pit of shame” and it was “a citadel of woke”.

The problem seems to be that the woke label is being applied in much the same way as ‘political correctness’ used to be - a fairly lazy, catch-all tool to talk down about attempts to modernise things for social good. Naturally, extreme and often questionable examples were seized upon, to the point that “the world’s gone mad” became a turn of phrase oft-heard and broadly agreed with by many people.

Woke should be different. It is, really, a silly word for what it was originally intended for, and was always open to the level and type of abuse it is now getting.

But we are beginning to see that being questioned by some media, which may encourage thought on the way the word is used, and even make it harder for it to be the tar on a politically-charged brush.

Few communicators sharing information about action on positive social change would reference it directly. But it is surely in the backs of minds - will this be seen as woke, will detractors cry woke, will it get written about with use of the w word?

We need to move on, with companies pursuing long-term social goals not getting tangled in individual words and labels.

And while some media outlets will doubtless continue to go big on the word to suit their own ends, the more businesses can rise above that in taking genuine social action that truly matters to their broad stakeholders, the better. Ultimately, actions should outperform words.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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