Money & Business

An Unfortunate Association: One Nonprofit’s Acronym Problem

By / Sep 8, 2014 This ISIS isn't the one you're probably thinking of. (Institute for Science and International Security screenshot)

Many names have been used to describe the the jihadi terrorist organization recently dominating the news. Media organizations, for the most part, have settled on the acronym ISIS. Another ISIS—the Institute for Science and International Security—has a problem with that.

No right-minded organization would want to be associated with an extremist group best known for the public beheadings of two American journalists and widespread atrocities against innocent civilians. But, due to an unsure translation and wide media coverage, that’s the situation that a handful of companies and nonprofits find themselves in.

We don’t want the word ISIS to become so stigmatized that it impacts our ability to fulfill the organization’s mission.

The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inform the public about science and policy issues that affect international security, is one such group. According to its website, its main focus is to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and other related technology. But ISIS is currently caught up in a different battle: differentiating itself from a terrorist group that media have labeled with exactly the same acronym.

In a statement on its website last week, the nonprofit called on media organizations to stop using the term ISIS to describe the terror group because it was causing “reputational harm to the many organizations and entities that also use this acronym.” The coverage of the group that refers to itself, in English, as the Islamic State has already forced a mobile wallet platform to rebrand and has prompted at least one petition on behalf of people named Isis.

The terrorist group, whose full name is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, has been referred to by several acronyms, including ISIS, ISIL, and IS. The debate over which one most accurately describes the group goes back to the English translation of the name and the geographic region it refers to. Government officials, the United Nations, and the Associated Press have adopted the term ISIL. Meanwhile nearly all television networks and major newspapers, including The New York Times,use ISIS.

“I found it strange that journalists who cover the government were refusing to use the term that the government uses,” said David Albright, president and founder of the nonprofit ISIS. “It’s confusing, because governments typically take the lead in naming these things or the organization itself, and yet we’re seeing several media organizations on their own initiative calling it something different.”

Albright’s group hasn’t suffered any noticeable harm to date, with the exception of a few misdirected Twitter rants, but he said he is getting nervous that companies will balk at potential partnerships because of the name.

“Then there’s just a concern among some of the staff about safety,” he said. “I have to worry that there could be some kind of harm done to staff or our building because of someone that’s so angry and can’t distinguish the difference.

“Obviously, what the U.S. and the rest of the world does in response to the Islamic State is far more important than our problem with the name, so we don’t want to press on this,” said Albright. “But at the same time, we don’t want the word ISIS to become so stigmatized that it impacts our ability to fulfill the organization’s mission.”

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. More »

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