Common Sense, Truth and Public Relations
By AFAM BELOLISA
On occasion, I have half-joked to my lawyer-friends that most legal principles and practice are simply based on common sense (even if they are sometimes expressed in Latin!) For instance, except with regard to the filing of ex parte motions, why would a defendant’s counsel be expected to appear in a matter in court if he has not been duly served with the details of the matter? Would that not amount to an unfair ambush, if allowed?
While some lawyers simply laugh at the joke, others mildly resent it because, I believe, if it were true it would tend to water down or dilute the assertion by the legal fraternity that, while many of us benefitted from formal education and are therefore “educated”, they, the lawyers alone, are truly “learned”.
However, in furtherance to the concept of common sense in the above context, it is common knowledge that legal professionals, both in their oral pronouncements in the court of law and in their written communication, often refer to “fairness, equity and good conscience” – concepts that seem to be somehow related to each other and to common sense. This is, perhaps, a throwback to centuries of human history where it would be rare indeed to find a civilization (even among the so-called “pagan” or barbarian societies) whose statute books or norms included or implied repugnant ideas such as: “You shall kill your fellow citizen if you don’t like him”; “If you desire your neighbour’s beautiful wife, go ahead and dispossess him of her”; “If you lack anything you need, take some by force from your rich neighbor who has too much, anyway”; “If you borrow money, don’t allow anybody to force you to refund the money; after all, your creditor, who is very rich, does not need the money urgently”; “Don’t bother to pay any tax if you don’t want to”!
Of course, this allusion to common sense with the legal profession also holds true for most liberal arts and social science-related vocations. What this all means is that human societies have always been regulated by a set of principles that prefers good to bad, right to wrong, reasonable to unreasonable, etc. And this has always been entrenched in their cultures and languages and passed on from generation to generation. The Igbo, for instance, give a pride of place to proverbs (which, incidentally, contain a lot of common sense) in both formal and informal discourse, to the point that proverbs are recognized as “the palm oil with which words are eaten”!
An ancient Israelite king realized this truth too late and to his eternal regret. He had just ascended his late father’s throne and the people, through their representatives, approached him and made a common sense request for a reduction in the heavy burden which had been the people’s lot during the reign of the former king. But the young king contemptuously rejected the people’s request after consulting with his youthful advisers. Indeed, he announced that the people’s burden would be markedly increased during his tenure. The result: the kingdom broke up and two separate nations emerged.
Now, what precisely is common sense? An English dictionary defines common sense as “the ability to think in a practical way and make sensible decisions”. Wikipedia describes it as “a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things that are shared by (“common to”) nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of all people without need for debate”.
According to George Bernard Shaw, “Common sense is instinct; enough of it is genius.” Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it this way: “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes. It is as rare as genius.” And for the celebrated Albert Einstein, the world-acclaimed genius who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The following common sense-related facts could be deduced from the above definitions and statements:
• The vast majority of rational human beings can be trusted to exercise some degree of common sense; they can also recognize and accept the result of a common sense decision or action.
• Common sense is a basic instinct in most human beings. However, taken to its most sublime level, it is comparable to genius.
• Common sense and genius are mutually inclusive as well as contextual in the sense that each can be found in the other and, although the former could produce the latter, the environment must be conducive in order to achieve the required addition of value.
An example of the third fact above is the 17th century scientist, Isaac Newton who was relaxing in his mother’s garden when an apple fell from a tree. This commonplace incident set him asking himself why the apple had not fallen upwards into the sky or horizontally in any direction. The mood, the context, was right and, from an apparently “foolish” question, great scientific Laws emerged and, as they say, the rest is history.
Truth is related to common sense in the sense that most rational human beings easily relate to, and prefer, the truth to lies because they instinctively recognize that truth conforms ordinarily to the laws of nature and, therefore, is in harmony with nature. It has often been said that truth easily stands on its own and usually has only one version in a particular context, whereas after an initial lie, several more lies might be necessary to prop up the original lie and prevent it from collapsing.
That sounds like the “gospel” according to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief and Adolf Hitler’s close confidant, who proudly declared that “a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.
And now a look at the dichotomy between Public Relations (which places emphasis on the truth) and Propaganda. Sam Black, the renowned PR guru and former Secretary-General of the International Public Relations Association, describes PR practice as “the art and science of achieving harmony with the environment through mutual understanding based on truth and full information”. Black goes on to say that “unlike PR, propaganda represents those types of persuasion which are based solely on self-interest and in which it may be necessary to distort the facts or even to falsify them in order to achieve the purpose.”
Also contrasting PR with propaganda, Professor Anne van der Meiden says that while the objective of PR is to achieve consent and true dialogue through complete openness, propaganda seeks to obscure the facts, build a movement and strive for a following.
It is apposite at this point to consider some scenarios relating to common sense in the practice of Public Relations. It should be obvious from the onset that an astute PR practitioner cannot afford to simply relax and play reactive instead of proactive. No matter how pleasant the environment may appear for an entity on the public relations front, all the bubble could burst in one day as a result of just one unfortunate incident. This reality calls for the deliberate and conscious development of strategic templates to deal with any possible image-denting incident.
A glaring example could be the classic case in the Nigerian environment of fire gutting part of an entity’s offices, with the loss of some vital files, and the interest usually shown by the public, especially if the accounts department is affected. While not necessarily being pessimistic, the PR person could consider such a scenario well in advance, prepare his initial statement, imagine some of the possible questions from news men and other stakeholders, and rehearse his answers.
It is common sense, of course, that common sense alone without proper honing of the individual’s talents, knowledge and skills in the theories, principles and practice of a vocation cannot transform anybody into a thoroughbred professional. Taking the allusion to lawyers with which this discourse began, can one possibly imagine a situation where a smart carpenter procures a barrister’s wig and gown, acquires a couple of volumes of Nigerian Law Report, and announces himself in court as Barrister XYZ? Or a young man who cannot distinguish between a trigger and a magazine on a gun storming into the middle of an intense battle in the Sambisa forest and loudly demanding to be part of the action?
PR professionals are familiar with most of the principles of PR, some of which are even implied in the several definitions of Public Relations. There are references to the creation and sustenance of goodwill among all the stakeholders. The paramount importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities for the sustainability of goodwill between the entity and the host community and other stakeholders is also well acknowledged.
Often, in real life situations, however, events do not always allow for time to follow the rule books. That is where the practitioner may have to develop certain common sense templates that could be quickly adapted to fit specific situations, especially with regard to damage control.
Imagine that you are the spokesperson of a four- or five-star hotel, and a guest, probably with a heart condition, is found dead in one of your rooms. What is the nature and tone of the initial press statement and the follow-ups, often under intense pressure? Worse still, if the person took his own life, how should the PR professional handle the initial statement, pending detailed follow-ups?
You run the PR outfit of a reputable private primary/secondary school. Given the complexities characterizing our present socio-economic environment, have you worked out (with the collaboration of the security department, perhaps) preventive measures against a possible child kidnap? And if, unfortunately, it does happen, how do you intend to control the damage?
The President of the Federal Republic, accompanied by a large entourage, is addressing an event in your establishment and everything humanly possible has been done to ensure steady power supply, including the procurement and installation of a giant diesel generator. Suddenly, the public electricity supply goes off and the standby generator does not respond even as sweating presidential aides and your own thoroughly embarrassed people are running around all over the place. At last, after seven agonizing minutes, the standby generator reluctantly splutters to life. You seize the microphone, with more than two hundred pairs of eyes (many of them hostile) staring at you. What do you say off the cuff?
The Nigerian military on several occasions has found itself at the receiving end of allegations by foreign-based human rights organizations, over human rights issues in its theatres of anti-insurgency and anti-militancy operations. The police, on their part, have been accused of sometimes being impatient to handle things their own way before they have an opportunity of reaching the courts. Our interest here is not in the veracity or otherwise of such allegations but from a PR perspective. Both establishments, it is assumed, should by now have developed good templates that could be deployed in response to similar accusations in future – of course, based on the truth.
This discourse does not intend to traverse all the well-known issues which form part of the public relations narrative and environment. The focus, rather, as earlier emphasized, is on the place and relevance of common sense, a basic human trait, which must not be underestimated in public relations practice. Repeating George Bernard Shaw, quoted earlier, enough of common sense is genius.
In concluding, the words of an Argentine air force fighter pilot who flew many dangerous sorties during the 1982 Falklands War in the South Atlantic, which pitched his country against Britain, come in handy. The British enjoyed naval superiority and so the Argentines naturally depended on their air force to try and knock out or sink the British warships.
Said the Argentine pilot, describing one of his sorties, “You approach the enemy ship and all the ship’s guns are blazing at you. You try to remember what you were taught in flying school, but your mind goes blank. From then on, instinct takes over and, minutes later as you race towards your home base, you are wondering how you survived.”
Well, the young man needed not have wondered; he survived by quickly engaging his survival instinct (or common sense) rather than trying, in the face of imminent death, to figure out what his flying school instructor had said many years before.
AFAM BELOLISA, mnipr, CEO Tesunem Consult, Abuja, and former Head of Corporate Communication, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS)