Scenario planning – Be ready for anything

Scenario planning has already been adopted widely in other sectors. By evaluating the impact of different variables over time, PR professionals can also use the future to manage the present

By Jon White,

Public relations is most valuable when it’s strategic – when it makes a full contribution to high-level decision-making and establishing a direction for the future.

There’s good evidence to suggest that organisations that incorporate the perspective offered by public relations into their strategic thinking, decision-making and ensuing actions are – simply put – more likely to be more successful.

But, for practitioners, practical questions are:

  • How can you make a strategic contribution?
  • How can you reap the benefits of operating at this level? 

Different types of strategic planning

In other areas of management consultancy, professionals make ready use of a number of analyses to inform their strategic thinking. Jay Ogilvy, writing for Forbes in January 2015, cited research that found scenario planning is the most popular of eight different tools, including SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, Delphi polling, Michael Porter’s five forces of competitive position, and other well-known planning methods.

In PR, scenario planning could be more widely used, with immediate and obvious benefits. It is a way of using future possibilities to help with making decisions about how to manage in the present. It originated in the work of thinktanks such as the Hudson Institute, and has been employed to great effect by companies such as Shell.

In addition to using scenario planning with national PR associations, I’ve used it with organisations such as Sony, the local government of a large Swiss city, and with groups of diplomats in the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office. It never fails to generate wide-ranging discussion and directions for future action.

The purpose and uses of scenario planning

Scenarios are used to:

  • help make decisions in the present;
  • plan;
  • see and capitalise on opportunities; and
  • avoid possible difficulties in the future.

Scenario planning identifies gaps in knowledge and research needs, and provides a way of testing assumptions.

Scenarios are ‘plausible pictures of the future’, developed through the use of informed and disciplined intuition. Speculations about the future are restricted to a small number of variables that are important in future developments. These speculations are based on knowledge of trends, and available data and research.

Where to start

Although it can be very technical and time-consuming, scenario planning can start with simply identifying successful outcomes for an organisation at some time in the future. For example, in the next three months, CIPR will look at Brexit and its consequences for public relations practice.

The exercise will start with questions such as: what would a successful exit from the EU look like, say, five years into the future? What factors or variables would be at play in a successful exit? This exercise will work, in the early stages, on the assumption that exiting the EU will be completed in five years.

Taking three or four of the variables identified at a time, each can be examined by starting in the present and looking at how it will develop over the coming years. For each variable, the best, worst and most likely developments can be considered.

Each scenario can then be examined: in terms of success, is the most likely scenario acceptable? Can steps be taken to get closer to the best-case scenario? How, precisely, can the worst-case scenario be avoided? The scenarios can be used in this way to inform current decision-making and give pointers to necessary action.

The exercise described can be undertaken with different variables or different combinations of variables, until no new insights emerge.

Ideally, the work of scenario generation should be carried out by groups of knowledgeable, if not expert, participants. Certainly, they should hold a diversity of viewpoints. The technique works especially well in consultancy settings and should be adopted by PR professionals.

Jon White is a member of the Influence editorial board. A Chartered PR Practitioner and a fellow of the Institute, he is a consultant and trainer, working internationally across PR practice and drawing on his background as a psychologist and management school faculty member

Recommended further reading 

The Art of the Long View: Scenario Planning – Protecting your Company Against an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz. This book is worth going back to; Schwartz worked with Shell, which gained widespread recognition for realising the benefits of skilful use of scenarios in the 1980s.

Business Planning for Turbulent Times: New Methods for Applying Scenarios, edited by Rafael Ramirez, John W Selsky and Kees van der Heijden.

Scenario planning and strategic forecasting, Jay Ogilvy, Forbes, 8 January 2015.

A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q3 2017.

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