Years ago, when I was at the end of my senior year at American University in Washington, D.C., I took a course titled Wicked Problems in National Security. As part of this course, we read The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb about how to create resilient strategies to succeed no matter what comes at you. Through Taleb’s ideas, I learned how to carry out long-term strategic thinking and look at the world through the prism of randomness.
This way of strategic thinking, which includes taking into account unknowns, identifying cognitive biases, and learning to think as all-encompassing as possible, has served me well throughout my life and throughout my career in PR. It enables me to clearly see the bigger picture and maneuver in such a way that I’m able to succeed in any situation.
The Blueprint of a Successful PR Campaign
When beginning any campaign, you have to ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve?” What is the ultimate goal? I’m not talking about “coverage for coverage’s sake,” but what do you want for your organization?
Instead, I’m talking about a big-picture goal. Does your organization want to be known as a David going up against the Goliaths? As the adult in the room with a wealth of experience? As the most powerful force in its region?
Once this goal is determined, you need a way to get to it—and that’s your campaign’s strategy or “what”. What steps do you need to take to achieve your goal? What objectives need to be achieved before you can move forward? What are the second and third-order effects of your actions to get to your objective, and will these effects benefit you?
Meanwhile, it’s important to note the difference between tactics and strategies. Tactics are the “how” of a campaign. How will you get from one objective in the strategy to the next? What do you need to do to get to the next step in your strategy? And how does this tactic fit into the overall strategy?
Use Data With Precision
One of the best ways to begin creating your strategy is to look at data to understand the landscape. This could be anything from market analysis, technological developments, troop movements, market differentiators, prevailing currents in ideas, and much more. Of course, as a PR pro, it’s always important to understand what journalists are looking for in pitches to get the most earned media coverage possible.
However, you won’t be able to get the most out of the data if you don’t look at the information holistically and in the proper context. Looking at data in a vacuum might give you a slight edge initially, but it’s only by understanding the circumstances that the information you’re relying on to create your strategy was derived from that you can give yourself a qualitative edge over your competition.
The Power of Calculated Risks
An often ignored aspect of data utilization, especially statistical data, is understanding data asymmetry. As Taleb says, if the stats benefit him, he’ll use them. If not, then he won’t. What does this mean?
It does NOT mean ignoring the data if it says you’re likely to crash and burn. Instead, you should try to understand how much you stand to benefit from something. Use the numbers to ensure that the likelihood of you doing something that benefits you is high while the costs of something going wrong are limited.
This is called “asymmetry,” and it’s used everywhere, from the battlefield to the boardroom. Here’s how it works.
Let’s say you’re coming up with a crisis communications strategy to manage your international organization’s reputation in light of a catastrophic event reported worldwide. You come up with a strategy (Strategy X), and it works based on your data and your experience. You estimate that, if all goes well, you’ll get ten pieces of positive media coverage in the national news of the country where the catastrophe happened. However, if it fails, you estimate your organization will receive 30 pieces of negative media coverage in international outlets. Are the risks of using this strategy worth the rewards? In this case, I’d say they aren’t.
However, assuming the above scenario, let’s say you come up with another strategy (Strategy Y). You estimate that you’ll get 15 pieces of positive international coverage if it works. However, you estimate you’ll get five pieces of negative local coverage if it fails. Are the risks of using this strategy worth the rewards? In this case, I’d say they are.
Monkeys In a Room
In Nassim Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness, he talks about the fact that randomness plays a large role in how and why the world works. Not everything happens for a logical reason, and a lot of events simply happen because of factors beyond the control of us mere mortals. One of his ideas I use regularly is that a superficial understanding of data can lead you to make worse decisions than if you had no data. How is this possible?
Taleb uses the example of an infinite number of monkeys slamming away at computers (I’m going to update the story a little bit). Eventually, one of them is going to write Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If given the chance, would you take that monkey and task it with writing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Does this monkey have some super-ability that the others lack? Or, would you look at the bigger picture and understand that this monkey writing the first book of the Harry Potter series is a random, one-in-a-zillion chance?
I use this same thought process for devising a PR strategy. While it’s important to use data, I also put it into context. What was the economic and social climate like when Barbie and Oppenheimer implemented their wildly successful PR strategies? What was going on in the world that enabled Oculus to become such a hit while Google Glass flopped?
Just as it’s important to know what makes a strategy work, we also need to look at what makes them fail. According to Taleb, when we look at data, we tend only to see the winners, giving us a distorted view of the odds of something working out. This is because we want to know how to succeed and completely ignore how not to lose.
Therefore, it’s important to figure out not only what went right when it succeeded, but also what went wrong when it fails. This way, you’ll be able to avoid the pitfalls experienced by others while better picking your way along the path of success. Understanding failures and successes needs to factor into your strategizing to create a campaign that will work for you and your particular circumstance.
And, of course, you need to count the luck factor. As Robert Burns once wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” Few people will ever confess that luck was the primary driver of their success. After all, who wants to admit they weren’t in complete control of their own destiny? And yet, many times, this is exactly the case. With this in mind, you should create a strategy that enables you to take advantage of any random door that luck opens along the way while staying flexible enough to avoid any stumbling blocks randomly placed in your path.
Anticipation, Not Prediction
There’s an ancient Greek parable about a hedgehog and a fox. In it, the fox tries dozens of different ways to eat the hedgehog, but the hedgehog keeps doing one thing—rolling into a ball and sticking out its spines. The fox knows many tricks, but the hedgehog has one big trick, and in the fable, the hedgehog always wins. But in the real world, the fox is able to adapt, improvise, and ultimately overcome.
According to psychologist Phil Tetlock, the fable of the fox and the hedgehog represent two different ways of thinking. In his view, hedgehogs are more big idea people, decisive, and reduce every problem to one central idea. Meanwhile, foxes are more accepting of nuance, know that life is full of contradictions and paradoxes, and are typically more open to using different kinds of approaches to tackle unique problems.
According to Taleb, people in finance will have better long-term success if they think like a fox. I believe that PR professionals need to strategize like foxes but be like hedgehogs in our messaging. We need to create resilient strategies that can evolve with new information but create strong, poignant messaging that instills confidence.
I create these strategies by understanding the need to anticipate that something down the road has the potential to become an obstacle and shove me into the ditch. While I don’t try to predict what might happen, I use data to understand my surroundings to ensure that my strategy will enable me to reach my goal. And, of course, I’m always on the lookout for a wild black swan.
Adapting with Nuance In PR
Before Europeans went to Australia, they thought all swans were white. In fact, the term “black swan” was an ancient Roman phrase describing something impossible. Then, once Europeans landed in Australia and found black swans, they realized that these animals could, in fact, exist.
This is the framework in which Taleb describes black swan events. They are events that, upon happening, completely change the way things are done. Specifically, he says they have three main criteria. To be a black swan, an event must be “an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
Some recent black swan events include the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 terror attacks, the rise of the internet, and generative AI.
While black swans can’t be predicted, we always have to keep in mind that they can happen and be ready for a quick adjustment in the event they do. To do this, strategists need to be foxes, relying less on top-down planning and instead leaving room for as much iteration and change as possible as new information becomes available.
One of the things that I try to do is understand what I don’t know to help create a strategy. I try to get as much general information as possible instead of being completely precise. By being general in my strategy, I’ve found I’m better able to bend with the winds of change, be it a sudden catastrophic breakdown in the world economy or a new piece of technology changing the way I do PR.
Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore, try to think creatively using previous data and history to try to predict a few theories as to what is possible—this requires REALLY generalized thinking and a good amount of Bayesian inference (i.e. a subjective and fluid method of estimating probabilities that something will happen). This prevents something Taleb calls “tunneling,” whereby the strategist ignores sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself. By bearing in mind that SOMETHING can happen, I can create a strategy that will almost always put me in the perfect position to take advantage of any surprises, black swan or otherwise.
An Antifragile Strategy
This makes any strategy I make antifragile. Another of Taleb’s concepts argues that strategies must protect their downsides while positioning themselves to benefit disproportionately from anything that happens. Basically, you need to ensure that not only will your strategy protect you from an unanticipated external event, but that you’ll be able to benefit from it.
The best ways to do this are to voraciously read the news, analyze the data, understand historical trends, and become an expert on a wide range of subjects. With this wider view, you can determine what’s likely to happen or, just as importantly, NOT happen. The more information you absorb, the more you can insulate your strategy to make it more resistant to any external event.
By maintaining an antifragile strategy, you’ll be able to take anything thrown at you and roll with the punches to come out ahead. All you need is a decent amount of data, a wide view of the landscape, and the will to do it.