Let’s Put the “Folk Wisdom” to Bed Already


I saw an interesting book on a coworker’s desk last week – The Art of War for Executives by Donald G. Krause, based on Sun Tzu’s classic text The Art of War. As I cracked it open yesterday and began reading it, a particular paragraph stood out to me and I found myself yelling “YES!” in my head.

“Sun Tzu warns us about relying on ‘folk wisdom.’ Folk wisdom is the body of unproven assumptions, unwarranted speculation, and generally accepted opinions that is present in any group of people. Great danger lies in not challenging folk wisdom. Reliable facts always precede successful actions.”

How much “folk wisdom” weighs us down daily, whether we’re talking about marketing, PR, social media or [insert your craft here], despite evidence that a new way may be better? One of the things I’ve said since the first post on this blog is that I want to use it regularly as a discussion starter to challenge the status quo and make sure we’re doing things because they are the best solutions, not simply because it’s the way we’ve always done them. Here are a few of the posts that have appeared here attempting to do just that.

I’m interested in your take. Do you notice any “folk wisdom” at work? Does it hold back your brand or the work you do for clients? Do you challenge the status quo even though it’s easier to go along with your boss or the crowd? What are ways we can challenge folk wisdom positively, constructively and effectively?

*Image by Kevin Dooley.

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13 responses to “Let’s Put the “Folk Wisdom” to Bed Already

  1. David, totally agree! I am always questioning the “folk wisdom” and the “kool-aid” too! LOL! 🙂

    Here’s the thing…in a work environment sometimes it’s just easier to be complacent to get along, not put your job in jeopardy, rise the corporate ladder, etc. And that’s totally understandable. It’s not easy being the person that questions everything…in fact, a lot of people hate being questioned.

    But that, I find, is the beauty of social media. We have the tools to share, discuss, debate, etc. and by doing so, it helps us to grow in our given professions…not matter what they are.

    I love to debate (most people know that by now) and it’s not because I think I am right…it’s because I want to know what I don’t know. What angles I might be missing, what other experiences change the equation, etc. I can only get that through a smart, good debate.

    If more PR/marketing/social media was debated (egos aside) at the workplace, I can’t imagine the wildly creative work that could be a result…it’s like nirvana. 😉

  2. Too many people go along to get along, never stopping to think, “Why are we doing it this way?” I don’t think Sun Tzu overstates things when he says that folk wisdom is dangerous. It’s also lazy.

    It’s like sleepwalking through life!

    Love that you regularly make us think here, David, which is why I subscribe to your blog 🙂


  3. Dave,

    As a PR Intern, I like to read as much as I can about PR and social media strategy and you offer some great insights. So thank you!

    As I’ve gained more experience, I’m learning what “folk” wisdom says and doing my best to ask questions to my superiors, not to challenge, but to find out why things are done a certain way. Young PR people (and seasoned PR vets) must be able to do this and always be willing to explore new and innovative ways to get the job done and do it well.

    Echoing Lisa, you make us think, and that’s why we subscribe!


  4. IMO people in education are notorious for having a set of ‘sacred cows’ that should have gone out to slaughter years ago but we hold on to them and keep passing them on to others for worship. I think that to challenge these artifacts of an organization is an attempt to break free of the bonds of mediocrity and is a necessary (but difficult) step.

    Too often comm/PR people don’t (for whatever reason) step up and question decisions both past and present. This tacit approval is what keeps pulling us backwards instead of bringing us forward.

    @Beth – I too, love a good debate (sometimes just for argument sake)

    And David, I agree with Lisa that you make us think, and that’s a good thing. Be well.


  5. Great points David,
    So much corporate culture is passed down from prior “generations” in any organization. It’s an area that absolutely fascinates me partly because culture is so challenging to change. Some of it is rocking the boat but much of it is creating a new vision of leadership that has to be accepted by all levels of an organization.

    It’s a magic moment when you get a culture that gels just right- you can accomplish amazing things….but finding that team and balance is a challenge. Hopefully this community can share thoughts/experiences to increase those successes. Thanks for posting

  6. Nice Post, David! This is something that gets me a little riled up because we gotta stop resting in our comfort zone. This kind of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality is what has brought down powerful companies (http://tinyurl.com/cwadvq) and strong brands into mediocrity (http://tinyurl.com/d4fdep).

    And think about this: why do we get so excited when we see a great movie or hear some cool music? It’s because the creators of something like that have thrown out ‘folk wisdom’ and adopted what makes them unique and strong. This is why I love things like Blue Man Group (http://tinyurl.com/4s9pel) – the ONLY way these guys could’ve seen the overall concept of using blue characters to convey enthusiasm, passion and fun for life was by tossing out the idea that what they do is pretty darn nutty.

    But this is what makes them so great.

    So, this week, we should each try something a little innovative. Better yet, we should give ourselves some time to innovate and come up with some thoughtful ideas on how we can make our jobs little more fun, effective and (why not) nutty.

  7. Challenging “folk wisdom” is clearly a relevant topic for your followers (myself included)…thank you for starting the conversation!

    Such “folk wisdom” about our PR industry is exactly the reason I decided to start my own firm and do my very best to make a wrong (the current image of the PR profession) a right (http://www.pipelinemediarelations.com/our-story.html). As many have already stated in their own way in the comments above, “actions speak much louder than words.”

    This post, your rally cry to PRSA last week, and the numerous conversations we’ve engaged in about this topic…inspires me to not fall victim of relying on such folk wisdom. I hope others that read this don’t just shake their heads in agreement, but actually do something about it:).


  8. Folk wisdom weighs people down. It shouldn’t be the starting point for any new ideas. Start with the new ideas, use wisdom of the past to refine ideas. It’s relevant, but shouldn’t affect our frame of reference.

  9. It’s also important to consider the other side of folk wisdom. While a major part is doing “what works” and keeping up the status quo, there’s also the occasion where an idea is shut down because it “doesn’t work.” Something that didn’t work for a different client a year ago may be the perfect solution for this client right now. We need to consider each idea as if it’s completely new – examine its relevance for the program, timing and message – before brushing it aside.

  10. Agree with Beth and Lisa’s thinking here. It’s like sleepwalking through life! Love that Lisa!

    In larger corporate structures, it’s easy to get caught up in doing things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” When I hear that phrase, my ears perk up and I settle in for a good discussion. As PR consultants, we can’t be afraid to have these “crucial conversations.” It’s what our clients pay us–and expect us–to do. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we need to be the ones to bring new ideas, new approaches and new thinking to the table to challenge the status quo.

    Is it easy? Hell no. Does it sometimes get us in hot water with our clients? Sometimes. But, is it the right thing to do? Absolutely.

    My plea to you all: Never be afraid to question the status quo and suggest new ideas. It may not make you the most popular person in the room, but over time, by doing just that, you will demonstrate remarkable value to the organization’s you serve.


  11. Great posting. It’s a delicate dance; knowing when to challenge and when to support. A lot of the most successful campaigns I’ve seen have come out of projects that were once tiny experiments.

    One person shoots an idea for a campaign, and shows it to friends at the office informally. The next time there’s a low-risk chance to try something new, perhaps that same person is now given the chance to elevate the idea one step further.

    Before we know it, the person has done so well that that little idea has become the year’s leading campaign, now supported by a healthy budget.

    I’ve seen this happen a couple of times, in different ways. One was for an internal comm approach and tool that one guy practically built in his basement. Another was an ad campaign that garnered the financial support of a major partnering vendor, and became one of the company’s most successful for two years in a row.

    Take time for your little ideas. You never know where they might lead.

  12. Working in the financial industry, I see this all the time. “If it’s broke, why fix it?” is common. So the challenge is to explain that things aren’t being changed, they are being modified. Ensuring a smoother transition, improving a process, etc. It’s difficult because they don’t like change, yet they reward it.

    The day you aren’t asking questions, aren’t questioning the status quo, aren’t looking for ways to improve is the day you need to re-evaluate yourself.

    Great post!

  13. Great post David.

    Being on the account side of things, all of that “folk wisdom” can easily turn into our guide, even our mantra. The reality is that now more than ever, it’s our job and responsibility to challenge “folk wisdom.”

    It seems that with the economy being the way it is, everything is starting to look, feel and act the same way, regardless of what we’re trying to say.
    Think of the few things lately that have really stood out and made us think “darn, I wish I would have done that!” – I’d be willing to bet that the majority of those big ideas/initiatives/etc. came from someone sticking their neck out there and a nervous organization jumping on board knowing the risk that’s involved but also understanding (and willingness to fight the good fight) the reward at the end.

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