What’s in a name? The push to rebrand immigration reform

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A self-proclaimed brand provocateur is challenging Hispanic journalists to rebrand immigration reform and come up with a more “forward looking phrase.”

Linda Ong argues that the phrase “immigration reform” has failed to “penetrate the culture in a way that is understandable.” Furthermore, she says, the phrase is too easy to disagree with because it carries an implicit message that “someone is coming in and threatening my livelihood—maybe taking money, jobs or health care from me.”

“We need to reframe the conversation in a way that people will not be scared,” said Ong, the president of TruthCo., a branding and cultural analysis firm whose client list includes a range of companies like MTV, NPR, AT&T, Mastercard and Fusion.

Speaking at the recent conference of the National Hispanic Journalists Association in San Antonio, Texas, Ong said that “reform” is a loaded term and a “negative word.”

Pair that with the word “immigration,” and you’ve got a serious branding problem. “Two negative words don’t make a positive,” she said in a phone interview.

Ong is calling on journalists to coin a new phrase that’s harder to disagree with, such as the campaigns around terms like “pro-choice” for abortion or “marriage equality” for gay marriage.

Semantics play a critical role in how people view issues, Ong said. Polling supports that claim.

A 2011 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found 52 percent of New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage, but when that same group was asked about “marriage equality,” 61 percent said yeah.

Women’s groups who advocate for a women’s right to abortions have also had success with the phrase pro-choice.

“‘Choice’ has been extraordinarily successful as a frame for the abortion-rights side because a lot of Americans may not like the idea of abortion but they definitely agree with the idea of choice,” Suzanne Staggenborg, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches social movements told the New York Times. “And they agree that it should be a woman’s choice in consultation with her doctor.” Women’s groups now say the term ‘pro choice’ is outdated and their looking for a new term also.

Politicos of all stripes use semantics to further their agendas.

In 2001, President George W. Bush pushed his controversial standardized testing strategy under the banner “no child left behind.”

“The things that Republicans have always succeeded with are things that people cannot say no to; that’s how immigration reform needs to be framed,” Ong said.

“It has to be something about making America stronger, or making families stronger, building the future —whatever gets people to understand that they are saying yes to something that is good for everybody, not just Hispanics,” she said. “I think that’s the problem with immigration reform currently, that it’s phrased as only good for Hispanics.”