Wick Communications

Don’t be so officious

In Writing on 16 Sep 2011 at 10:18 am

The other day I was sharing the Sunday New York Times with a friend (which, by the way, is one of the purest pleasures on planet earth) and she noted something that I have read right over a million times.

“What’s a ‘sales official?’” she wanted to know.

It was a long, involved story about the efforts of medical device companies to curry favor of doctors and hospitals. The companies often hire doctors as consultants and their consultants then use and talk-up the same products in their work. It’s an obvious conflict of interest to me, but just seems to be standard operating procedures in the industry.

Anyway, here is the paragraph that got my friend’s attention:

In addition, the records provide a rare look at a central player in these types of transactions: the sales officials who promote implants by finding ways to flatter doctors or fatten their wallets. …

Sometimes it seems everyone we quote is an “official” of one kind or another. And my newspaper, the Half Moon Bay Review, is just as guilty of what I would call source inflation as any other.

If you are writing about advertising representatives, say so. If you are talking about local Boy Scout troop leaders, it is probably inappropriate to call them “officials,” don’t you think? The national HQ guys may well be Scouting officials… but I wouldn’t say that of the Den Mother.

My dictionary says an official is one who holds an office. If you think of it that way, you might rethink longstanding journalistic shorthand such as “police officials,” “league officials” and so on.


  1. Ooo that’s a good topic. I struggle with that too. It seems especially tricky for me when I’m reporting on local happenings in towns that are unincorporated. There’s no mayor, council, no actual leader. So what do you call those leading the town? I just ended up calling them residents.

  2. I’m with you on that one, Clay.
    May be a little off topic, but regarding titles, in Nogales we have multiple law enforcement agencies, from local to feds.It used to be common to use “officer” and “agent” interchangeably. Well after the formation of DHS, we learned the hard way: Customs and Border Protection personnel are “officers” while its sister agency, the Border Patrol has “agents.” Get it wrong and we’ll hear from the PIOs.

  3. Right there on that one Clay…
    This would be especially true in the social networking environment where the entire objective is to “retweet,” or “like.” Be careful with your cred

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