Monday, December 13, 2010

What I Learned from Wikileaks - How to Write a "Cable"

Whatever you think of Mr. Assange and his leaky crew - and incidentally, thinking can get one into serious trouble in this business, as quite a few HRI former employees can attest - one thing that must have been noticed by anyone worth their salt is the tone of all those "cables" (in case you wonder "cable" is classified code for "email" - an ingenious first line of defense, a diversion: "cables are hardware, not here for hardware, damn they're good").

Anyway, as i was saying it's not WHAT the cables say (although like many of you i was stunned for example to hear that Pfizer, long-standing PPP parter of HRI, was playing dirty in Nigeria - you see like you, I always thought Big Business was dominated by honest, enlightened companies doing the right thing, pillars of decency such as Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs).

Nope, it's HOW those cables say what they say that we all notice, a style that comes as close as I have ever seen to shameless bragging, patronizing and not-exactly-refuting-any-possible-assumptions-that-would-give-the-author-more-credit-than-deserved. It is familiar to me because, like I, many successful HRI employees and representatives of important partners and donors master this style and I do not think I am wrong to assume that it is also favored by quite a few readers of this here humble newsletter as well.

Could that be a coincidence?

For the benefit of those who have no idea what i am talking about: imagine an embassy employee that is one day approached with information by a dissident in a country run by an evil, nasty government. He'll hear the story and then choose to send a "cable" - the style options at this employee's disposal can be boiled down to two main ones:

1. the "straight forward": "i have been approached by so and so who told me this or the other" and
2. the "I am fucking awesome, me": "because i am such a skilled diplomat, i have finally managed to obtain access to a very reliable source (i may have put my life in danger as well, but i am fine, thanks for asking) that has confirmed all the suspicions I had after comprehensive and very discreete investigations and complex inferences and deductions - that this or the other thing is happening. Besides i am such an amazing writer I bet you are reading this in awe, can I get a promotion out of this shithole please".

You get it, right?

You may be wondering what this has to do with the important work we are doing here at HRI. Well, don't wonder about it now - wonder about it next time you organize a life-saving workshop about building housing* in Haiti for example, and you notice that your own local Emma is not happy with the "branding" of this initiative. A good guess would be that she probably won't plan to go back to her desk and write "our partner HRI has just implemented a workshop, lives have been saved, good on them".

That's right your failure with the branding has just limited her style options, as good a reason as any other to get your shitty organization de-funded.

* don't you just love the gerund in this? Style options for euphemisms are, like, limitless.


  1. I am highly disappointed that in a 'cable' about writing style in cables, the head, no less, of the highly respected organisation HRI could have failed to capitalise all his 'I's.

  2. he may have not capitalized his all I's, but at least he dotted them, and crossed the T's as well.

  3. Been a while, Dr...

  4. Hear hear! I trust that this unusual silence is due to routine year-end financial spreadsheet manipulation to placate donors.