Lesson for spokes: picking the right analogy

The University of New Brunswick has told a student in their summer English immersion program that he must issue commands to his guide dog in English - despite the dog being as Francophone as his master. This is an interesting dispute in its own right, but I'm more interested in the tortuous logic used by the university's talking head as she tried to explain their strict adherence to English-only standards. Speaking to the National Post,

Susan Mesheau, the university's director of public relations, said that permitting Mr. Tessier to speak French to Pavot during the immersion program would be like admitting someone with sub-standard marks into the engineering faculty.

"We cannot lower a standard," she said in an interview from Fredericton. "'OK, you're a nice guy, I'll lower it for you. You might not be as good an engineer. You might build bridges that people can fall off of, but that's OK.' That's silliness. Academic standards are academic standards."

The university has some strong points to make about their program, its success, and the strict requirement to work, speak and live only in English. Today, they received even-handed coverage in a number of Canadian papers (here and here). My admittedly selective quote illustrates two points important for all spokespersons:

  • do not let your analogy confuse your message: it's patently unfair to compare the standards of a four year engineering program with a summer language immersion school. The argument for academic standards is valid, but should have been expressed more directly.
  • do not escalate the crisis with your interview: by making such an outsized comparison, the spokesperson has left a perception of anxiety, irritation or unreasonableness with the reader. Other university officials have spoken on this issue and made their points clearly - but they did not get quoted in the 5th graf of an A1 story.
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