24 January 2005

The Persuasion Business

A buddy of mine used to be a lawyer; he's a judge now. But he said something once that really made me think. "Ed," he told me after sitting through one of my workshops on public relations, "you and I are in the same business, the persuasion business."

It took me a while to think that over and realize he was right. Public relations people like me and lawyers both try to persuade people of the case we are making. We present evidence, discuss what the evidence means , make an argument and then look to people to make a decision. In his business, his audience might be a judge or it might be a jury of 12 people, many of whom have never heard anything about his case before.

In my business, the judge and jury are the people interested in a particular company project and issue. They might know something about it. They might know a lot. They might know nothing at all. Basically, though, we have the same job.

In both a court room and the court of public opinion, you don't win any points for spin - that is, you don't get any points for being cute or trying to fill in with misrepresentation what you can't demonstrate with facts. Lawyers, judges and even juries are usually pretty good at spotting bull. The danger for politicians and others who like to "spin" is that while they might win a particular case, in the long run their deceptions will catch up with them.

That's because, fundamentally, people in Newfoundland and Labrador, like people all across the country, have some common characteristics. They hate being lied to, especially if the lie winds up costing them something. They have a belief in fairness. They want to hear all sides and points of view before making up their minds. They have a willingness to give people the benefit of a doubt and by and large they are pretty generous with their time, their money and , as we have seen during things like 9/11, they are amazingly open and welcoming to people in a hard spot. There is a also a profound sense of right and wrong and the reason they reject spin, when they discover it, is because spin is basically none of those things. At its heart, spin, takes away the power of ordinary people to make judgments about issues that affect them or their neighbours. They are democrats at heart in that they know that ultimately decisions made by government affect them personally and they want to have as much control over their lives as possible.

Some of the comments in a couple of my earlier posts might mislead you into believing that I think the people who submit material to the Fair Deal site aren't in that category of fair-minded people I just described. If I left that impression, then let me correct it now, then let me correct that now. The people I have come across there, like the people I come across every day in St. John's have every quality I described above. The ones who have made up their minds and back the Premier to the hilt are doing so out of a firm belief that something unfair is happening. They may be right, although I'd disagree. Their actions are motivated by a desire to right a wrong, to make fair what they feel is unfair. And there should be no doubt that, with one or two exceptions they are actually clamouring for more information on this whole Atlantic Accord thing. Most, I would venture, would even be willing to make some adjustments to their opinions based on solid evidence. They might even change their minds entirely.

That brings me to the provincial and federal governments.

The provincial government started this whole business back last year. Therefore, it has really been up to them to make a strong case for changing the Atlantic Accord. To date, they haven't done it. They have kept details and information on revenues to themselves or distorted what they have released. They have completed misrepresented the Atlantic Accord provisions and, in the latest version of the Premier's "offsets" they continue to reinvent plain English words in a way that seems designed to sow more confusion rather than state a simple case.

All that doesn't mean they don't have a good case to make. I just think they have buried the reality under mounds of distortions. Much of what has happened, like the flag flap, was also the result of one or another off-the-cuff decision by the Premier. In other cases, there has been a calculated effort to ramp up public expectations - the Premier is the only one who talked of deadlines and make-or-break meetings - and then slam the federal government when expectations weren't met.

On the federal government side, there really isn't much excuse either for the complete lack of information flowing from Ottawa. People have no idea what the federal position is. The federal government has made only half-hearted efforts to tell people about the Atlantic Accord and I would venture there are a raft of people who haven't seen the Prime Minister's letter to the Premier. Heck, they might not even know there was one.

What I have been looking for here is not the grandiose rhetoric we have been getting. Rather, a good example of what I have in mind came in the mid 1970s. As part of laying out its claim to the offshore, the provincial government sent every household a glossy brochure that laid out the case. History. A bit of law. The basic principals of the case. There was an active effort to engage public support, to persuade the public of the rightness of the provincial case and to win their support. Compare that to today.

The reason I'd expect some solid information from both sides is that I expect them to try and persuade me and others. I don't expect to be taken for granted, which is exactly what the provincial government in particular is doing.

I want them to try and persuade me. Only then will i know for sure that both governments get a fundamental point that has been mssing from this discussion to date: the money they are fighting over isn't theirs. It's mine.

And it's my call as to who to gets to spend it.