The acronym list at Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services Web site runs 53 pages. OUCH. The acronym list for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare stretches 37 pages. YIKES.
But fortunately for citizens, both departments employ communication specialists who once toiled in daily newspaper journalism. There, they learned to translate jargon, and now they beat the drum against acronyms.
Thomas Shapley, communications director for DSHS, summarized this drumbeat: “Acronyms, avoid them whenever possible. When in doubt, spell it out.”
Shapley worked as a journalist for 30 years. He was a columnist and editorial writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before taking a communications job with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2006. A year ago, he joined DSHS, and within six months, he published a 15-page DSHS style guide for internal use, based on the Associated Press stylebook. In 2005, Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a plain talk executive order. The stylebook makes it easy for DSHS employees to comply.
“The newspaper industry has been the leader in concise communication with the public for a long time, and AP wrote the Bible for that writing,” Shapley said.
Tom Shanahan, public information officer for Idaho’s health and welfare department, spent 24 years in newspaper journalism and spreads the anti-acronym message, too. “We can become acronym-laden and it all makes sense to us,” Shanahan said. “But it’s not a good communication tool.”
Acronyms still abound in legal briefs, scientific research papers and e-mails among agency colleagues. All agreed that’s OK.
“It’s a shorthand way for people to quickly communicate with those within their field,” explained John Wiley who worked as a journalist for 30 years, 26 with The Associated Press, before joining DSHS as the Eastern Washington media relations manager.
Some acronyms have sneaked their way into common-speak. Most people know a GED is what people can get instead of a high school diploma, and COBRA extends medical benefits after people lose their jobs. COBRA is on the DSHS list, too, and it stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. HUH?
“Publishing the acronym list is in effect a plain-talk effort,” Shapley said. “It lets us know what the hell we’re talking about.”