A few hundred years BC, a Cypriot merchant lost everything in a shipwreck.
His name was Zeno and according to the legend, he walked into a bookstore, broke and almost beaten, and started to search for answers by reading philosophy. Some years later, he went on to lay the foundation of stoicism. A stoic believes that the world should be taken at face value without expectations. But stoicism is also, in more ways than one, the opposite of traditional public relations; we strive to influence perception and manufacture consent by making people wanting more.
But what if Zeno was right — and we are wrong?
The slight edge paradox
Would it be so wrong if a business would be satisfied with moderate success, modest revenues, slow growth, and not a sliver of attention in excess of its basic requirements? Just a sound place of work for a few good people serving a steady base of loyal customers along the way. But even if we can find a way to accept such a business model, there’s still the problem of the Slight Edge Paradox:
Example: Imagine two types of trees growing in the rainforest. Down at the rainforest floor, the vegetation is so thick, that both types of trees must grow tall to reach the canopy and those precious rays of sunlight. Imagine that one of these two types of trees grows 0,1% faster than the other. It’s only a slight edge, but it makes all the difference. In time, the type of tree with the 0,1% edge will eventually accumulate and allow the tree to dominate the whole rainforest (see also Hyperdominance in the Amazonian Tree Flora).
In both rainforests and in business, the gains aren’t really distributed based on relative performance. You can loose a race by a millisecond, but the winner will take the prize. Whether that’s a wild prey or a new client. And the winner won’t share their spoils with you for being a close second. After all, we don’t call it the “law of the jungle” by accident.
From a Stoic perspective, this is the Darwinian reality that has to be taken seriously — or get prepared to slowly perish in the marketplace.
So, what’s the strategy here?
The idea of a stoic approach to public relations made me revisit a book I read a few years ago, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs. Drawing from stoic philosophy, Holiday makes the argument that stoicism isn’t just about enduring pain and adversity with perseverance and resilience:
The slight edge is about growing and learning from hardships — and transforming obstacles into opportunities.
A stoic marketer will shy away from trying to reach the masses with the use of fireworks and hyperbole promises. To succeed with public relations the stoic way, obstacles must be transformed into PR opportunities. The difficulty of your path will be your best tool for conquering public opinion. The grand prize is not fame nor money, but rather a value-centric approach to business.
Cardinal virtues for stoic public relations
1. The wisdom pitch
Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote, “A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desires into undertaking.”
Tell the story of how your business overcomes obstacles that has stopped others in their tracks. Tell the story of the importance of applying knowledge and experience.
2. The courage pitch
Epictetus wrote, “We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Tell the story of a brand who never backs down in the face of difficulties that would destroy other businesses. Tell the story of how a business can do things that are righteous but also extremely uncomfortable.
3. The justice pitch
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Concentrate every minute on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”
Tell the story of how your business relentlessly strives for honesty and transparency — even when it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable. Tell the story of how your brand, without exception, are cleansing itself of dishonesty and incompetence.
4. The temperance pitch
Seneca wrote, “It’s not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
Tell the story of a business that strives for higher values in a world where all other businesses strives to maximise their profits. Tell the story of a brand that is prepared to abstain from maximising profits to make the world a better place.