3 ways pessimism is a PR asset

In an industry that tends to focus on the positive, there should be a healthy dose of negativity, this author says.


An article on the MIT Sloan Management Review blog caught my attention. The article asserted that in a world where optimism reigns, a little pessimism is a good thing.

In our culture, pessimism is a state of mind where one anticipates negative outcomes. We often classify individuals as either optimistic or pessimistic based on the age-old question, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” We classify those who answer “half empty” as pessimists. They focus on the negative and what’s likely to go wrong.

Despite pessimism’s stigma, can it be an undervalued asset and valuable tool in PR?

As the MIT post suggests, pessimistic thinking presents distinct advantages: the ability to proactively recognize and avoid future problems, stave off passiveness, and quell overconfidence.

In a society that favors positive temperaments, can pessimism help us be more discerning and cautious about the future to help colleagues and C-level executives be more perceptive and realistic?

As the voice—and often face—of our companies and clients, it almost seems counterintuitive to be pessimistic, especially in an environment and culture that expects and thrives off optimism.

How can pessimism be an asset to a PR pro? Here are three ways:

1. Pragmatism

Effectively broadcasting and highlighting the positive is a big part of public relations. I’ve sat in on many meetings where executives extol the virtues of a new product or service, glowingly illustrate the features and benefits, and explain how they created it to fill a market need or meet consumer demand.

Executives dream big, but they don’t always evaluate all the angles. They let their overconfidence shadow realistic possibilities. It’s your job as a PR pro to speak up, ask “what if” questions, and consider all possible scenarios with an optimistic and pessimistic outlook.

2. Defense

Have you ever heard the adage, “The best offense is a good defense?” In the era of digital communications, companies are sometimes more positive after a crisis then they were before it happened. If the unexpected strikes, can you quickly turn to a well-prepared crisis communications strategy? Preparation is key for public relations. Map a defense by properly assessing optimistic and pessimistic outlooks in advance. The ability to be nimble is a key characteristic of today’s PR pro.

3. Balance

Optimism is a powerful force in business. The MIT article pointed out that people have directly linked optimistic thinking to job candidates finding work more easily and getting promoted faster. Why, then, should PR pros consider a dose of pessimism an important ingredient in our business acumen?

The answer is balance. It’s easy to get excited about ideas or newfound success and the promise it holds for the future. It is important to add timely, balanced and realistic injections of pessimism to your careful evaluation of all possible scenarios.

Not only does it help to temper overconfidence, but it demonstrates level-headed thinking in times of optimistic euphoria. Develop a balanced approach and lead by example.

Do you think pessimism has a place in PR?

John Trader is a public relations and marketing manager for M2SYS Technology. A version of this article first appeared on PRBreakfastClub.com.

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Topics: PR

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