3 Ways Pessimism is an Asset in PR

Does pessimism have a place in PR?
Half empty or half full?

An article recently published over at the MIT Sloan Management Review blog caught my attention. Essentially, the article asserted that in a world where optimism reigns, a little pessimism is a good thing.

In our culture, pessimism is generally perceived as 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 tend to classify those who answer “half empty” as stewards of a pessimistic outlook, always focusing on the negative and what’s likely to go wrong.

Despite the stigma that pessimism has, can it be interpreted as an undervalued asset and a valuable tool in PR?

As the MIT post suggests, thinking pessimistically presents distinct advantages, among them the ability to proactively recognize and avoid future problems, stave off passiveness and quell overconfidence. In a society that favors a positive temperament, does pessimism have a place in PR to help us to be more discerning in our point of view and cautious about the future to help colleagues and the C-level be more perceptive and realistic?

As the voice and often the face of our company and/or clients, it almost seems counterintuitive for us to be pessimistic, especially in an environment and a culture that expects and thrives off optimism. If being pessimistic translates into negativity, how exactly can it be an asset to a PR pro? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Pragmatism – Effectively broadcasting and leveraging the positive are 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 illustrating the features and benefits and how it was created to fill a market need or in direct response to consumer demand. Executives dream big but sometimes may not evaluate all the angles letting overconfidence shadow realistic possibilities. It’s your job as a PR pro to speak up, ask the “what if” questions, and whiteboard all the scenarios covering the optimistic and pessimistic outlooks.
  2. The Big DEver heard the adage, “the best offense is a good defense?” It seems in the new era of digital communications that sometimes, collectively, companies end up rosier following 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 so make sure you map a defense by properly assessing the optimistic and pessimistic in advance. The ability to be nimble is a key characteristic of today’s PR pro.
  3. BalanceOptimism is a powerful force in business. The MIT article pointed out that thinking optimistically has been directly linked to helping job candidates find work more easily and get promoted up the ladder faster. Why then, should PR pros include a dose of pessimism as an important ingredient in our business acumen? The answer is balance. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement that comes from ideas or newfound success and the promise they hold for the future. Timely, balanced and realistic injections of pessimism through careful evaluation of all possible scenarios is important. Not only does it help to temper overconfidence but it demonstrates level headed thinking in times of optimistic euphoria. Step up and lead by example by developing a balanced approach.

Do you agree? Does pessimism have a place in PR? Share your thoughts with us.