How not to write rebuttals By Segun McMedal
For years, I’ve suppressed my reservations over the structure, wording, and choice of words used in writing rebuttals in the public domain. However, I couldn’t resist writing about the recent one involving the Supreme Court and Faroq Kperogi.
As a public relations practitioner, I am appalled by the Supreme Court’s rebuttal to Faroq Kperogi’s editorial berating the Court on its judgment over the duo of Senate President Ahmad Lawan and former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio Akpabio, favouring them to reap where he believes they did not sow.
Faroq Kperogi had written a critical editorial rebuking the apex Court for ordering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to recognise Lawan and Akpabio, who did not contest the senatorial primary elections in their constituencies, as candidates for the February 25 elections.
The duo withdrew voluntarily to participate in the Presidential Primaries of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which they lost. His argument was that it is morally wrong to rule in their favour since they did not take part in the senatorial primaries as required by law. Constitutional lawyers and media analysts also objected because it could set a bad precedent. Several others also dissented, but the Apex Court, in its wisdom, chose to respond to Faroq Kperogi – and in no friendly terms.
I am not a lawyer and will not attempt to bore you with all the details leading to the judgment. My interest lies in the rebuttal issued by the Apex Court’s Director of Press and Information, Dr. Festus Akande, which left much to be desired. It is one of the worst examples of public affairs communication, especially from a revered institution like the Supreme Court. It negated the purpose of a rebuttal.
I have found that many media advisers and directors of communication in government offices with journalism backgrounds are prone to writing rebuttals that go off on tangents. Many have shown concerns over the way media advisers to the president, past and present, write rebuttals. Seasoned communication practitioners can tell the difference between a rebuttal written by a public relations practitioner and one written by a journalist.
A rebuttal, mostly used by lawyers, is an argument that is presented to refute or contradict the position of the opposing party’s argument. Its goal is to weaken or undermine the opponent’s claim.
The overarching role of public affairs communication is to build relationships. This field of public relations seeks to shape perception, establish, and uphold a solid reputation, and establish rapport with stakeholders. Going by this, the goal should be to write a rebuttal without provoking or insulting anyone. Rebuttals, in my opinion, should be illuminating, providing an opportunity to educate the opponent, who may be ignorant.
Message framing is very important in public affairs. It is the process a writer uses to control the way an audience receives his message. One can infer that someone is stupid without saying that he is. There are numerous ways to communicate to reach the intended audience.
To write rebuttals that win everyone’s admiration, remember these five guidelines:
- Acknowledge the writer and address their concern in your rebuttal.
- Avoid using offensive language or personal attacks. Instead, just focus on the facts and make your case, like a lawyer. Period!
- Don’t allow ego or emotion to get in the way. Instead, be illuminating and let logic drive the argument.
Remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Directors of public communications should resist the temptation to rain insults and derision on their perceived adversaries. it brings out the worst in people. They need to be retrained in the art of public affairs communication.
Given their extraordinary access to information, people are becoming more discerning, which is a good thing to keep in mind. Communication and public affairs professionals must engage with them more professionally.
Segun McMedal is a public relations practitioner and the immediate past Chairman of the Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.