It may be a little counterintuitive, but sometimes saying outrageous things is morally praiseworthy. Saying outrageous things allows us to test the boundaries of our assumptions, to help determine where the truth lies, and be more understanding of divergent opinions.
I use ‘thought experiments’ based on that concept to teach critical thinking in my PR ethics courses. I pair students into teams, ask each one to take a position on a hot-button issue, and then to spend a few minutes arguing the exact opposite of their own position. When freed from their guiding assumptions, many students end up saying outrageous things. Many students don't, but they all learn about critically analyzing an issue from multiple perspectives.
The exercise seems kind of crazy, and is usually met with some uncomfortable laughter as we get started. But exploring counter-ideas this way really works to help understand rationales, boundaries, and why you believe something.
Is there a way that you could apply this concept in your PR position?
Examining the opposite of your beliefs and assumptions may offer a powerful tool for thinking originally, innovatively, spotting weaknesses, and avoiding groupthink. The latter is a phenomenon that takes over when an assertive or powerful personality argues for one position.
The rest of the group can become constrained in their thinking, offering only supportive – rather than critical – information because they want to go along with the group. For example, if the SVP says, "We really want to emphasize X about this client/product/service," many group members will respond by talking about X and the positive attributes of X that can be highlighted. Fewer group members have the audacity that is needed to say, "Why emphasize X when we have not considered Y?"
You may have seen me use this column before to argue about actively taking a critical role at the management table, asking "What's the worst that can happen" when engaging in issues management, or engaging in an independent analysis that allows you to speak truth to those in power, adding value by being at the table. Saying outrageous things or arguing opposite points is one more means of activating your full worth. After all, most of us do not get paid to agree, but to think, do, and accomplish outcomes.
So, test the waters – maybe with a little disclosure about what you're doing. Throw out a thought experiment at your next meeting.
Challenge assumptions and take the opposite view for a while to see what emerges. "What would we be doing if we were on the opposite side of this issue?" often can be the most valuable question of the day.
Don't be afraid to be outrageous and provocative and see where these positions lead. Not only are you prepping for disaster or crisis, you are ready for opposition, challenge, hostile journalists, advocacy groups, or worse. The beauty of the outcome going forward is that you have thought about it really well before making a move. By understanding the oppositional arguments, you can be ready to counter them.
This approach is also an ethical one. It allows you to rigorously and rationally test your positions. By arguing the opposite of your stance, you might come to see that they have some valid points that should be incorporated.
Or you might believe it still outrageous, but at least you can understand their perspective, empathize with people who may hold that view, and be prepared to deal with publics accordingly. Ethics seeks ways that we can look at our positions, actions, and beliefs from multiple perspectives, and address weaknesses in our own stances – and that goal is strikingly similar to excellent PR.
Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.