Expectation management

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.


In public relations we’re expected to predict the future. We create plans and advise bosses and clients about the change we hope to see.

This means we’re often educating non-experts on the potential – and limitations – of public relations. This involves expectation management.

It’s particularly challenging in consultancy work as you have to aim high to win the client, so are under immediate pressure to exceed these expectations – or come up with a convincing analysis to explain why we should reset our expectations.

This planning – and our predictions – take place in an unpredictable world. We are not in control of events or the actions of our competitors.

We’re witnessing a good example from professional football.

So far, England football manager Gareth Southgate has provided a masterclass in expectation management.

The team navigated qualification without any major scares – and without setting the pulse racing. Already England have achieved more by qualifying than Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, all the other home nations and Ireland.

His challenge is about to get harder. There’s an expectation that England will progress from the group stage, probably coming second to much-fancied Belgium.

In the coming months, Southgate will repeatedly be asked if England can win the World Cup. The team would not be travelling expecting to lose, but he should not allow an unreasonable expectation to build.

This is less about press and public relations than about team management: he does not want there to be so much expectation on his players that they are too scared to perform – as seems to have happened at previous tournaments.

So far he’s been lucky. England failed to qualify from the group stage at the last World Cup in Brazil, so the bar is not yet set very high. And he has a young team, so this tournament is more about building for the future than about a last chance to achieve success.

While England is among a select group of former World Cup winners, Alf Ramsey’s team had home advantage in 1966 – and that was more than 50 years ago.

If the team performs poorly, Southgate’s calmness will be condemned as a lack of passion. But for now his measured approach and the team’s steady progress seem designed to restrain over-exuberant expectations.

Best of all for Gareth Southgate, his competence and focus on the future has already led to a long-term vote of confidence from his bosses at the FA.

If the immediate pressure’s off the manager and the players can be protected from unrealistic hype and unreasonable criticism, then England’s World Cup could be one to enjoy.

As well as following the matches, I’ll be watching out for how Southgate manages unrealistic expectations and provides an unexpected public relations masterclass.