Wishing for a Better 2021? You’re Going to Need a Plan.

October 21, 2020

 

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

One of my clients was recently asked, “How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?” How indeed? This year has put even the most resilient and scrappy professionals to the ultimate test. Making a plan seems futile on a good day. But my client, rather than punting in frustration, or offering a cliché reflection on optimism, instead gave a tangible, actionable response to the question. He explained how his company implements a barbell strategy and follows the antifragile philosophy first introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He went on to share how these principles have helped his company thrive during turbulent times.

I’ve been thinking since that interview about whether barbell and antifragile strategies hold relevance for marketing, PR and communications professionals. And how they might be applied to support the inevitable, important (and sure, dreaded) task of planning for 2021. Ultimately, good business strategies are just good strategies, and they can make sense in virtually any application. So, I’ve taken a stab at a few ways barbell and antifragile can be used in communications, and how to build upon those as you kick-off annual planning season.

First, a quick lesson on what these principles are.

Antifragile was introduced in Taleb’s 2012 book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, in which Taleb explores, “opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk and decision-making in a world we don’t understand.” The general idea is to determine ways to prosper amid adversity, namely by decentralizing systems to become more, “adaptable to systemic stresses.”

Barbell is an investment strategy, that according to Investopedia, “suggests that the best way to strike a balance between reward and risk is to invest in the two extremes of high risk and no risk assets while avoiding middle-of-the-road choices.” According to our client, barbell has allowed his company to remain, “insulated from the impacts of unpredictable events.”

So, how do these translate to communications success in 2021? It’s a lot more than a hope and a wish. Becoming antifragile and/or implementing a barbell strategy will require a mindset shift, a solid plan, flexibility and perhaps a bit of luck. Below are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Rethink your position on risk and redefine rewards. Results look different during tough times. Goals (i.e. rewards) may need a major reset. Be realistic about what success looks like. Rewards should be measurable and impactful, but they may look different than your usual parameters. Similarly, don’t shy away from risks. Let 2021 be a year of experimentation and new ideas.

 

  • Leave no stone unturned. What’s a PR strategy you’ve considered but have backburnered or forgotten about? Is there a new audience or vertical you’ve been meaning to target but haven’t prioritized? A beat reporter who you follow but aren’t sure how your company fits into her coverage? Take a close look at these fringe ideas and opportunities and give a few a try. Don’t just think about it and de-prioritize all over again—build unique ideas into your plan, backed by resources, timing and benchmarks.

 

  • Get out of the road. The middle-of-the-road, that is. Barbell leaves no room for a moderate approach. Instead, find balance in the extremes. What safe bets, your tried and true approaches, can you carry on into the new year? Maybe it’s your byline program. Or, the quarterly surveys and reports your audience has come to expect. These are the “low risk” activities you need as part of your plan. Counter them with some “high risk” campaigns that push outside comfort zones. Have you worked with influencers? Created a viral video? Taken a controversial stance on a topic in your industry? Sure, new positions and channels can be risky. But the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

 

  • Contingency plan. Try to think of the worst case scenario that may hit your company, or your communications team. Make sure your 2021 plan has a crisis response, and pivots, built in for these possibilities.

 

  • Be (cautiously) opportunistic. Warning, tread lightly here. Attempts at pivoting your communications campaigns to align with current events must be done with good intensions and authenticity. What new topics of conversation have spurred in your industry as a result of the current environment? Has the competitive landscape changed? Is there a positive take you can bring to an otherwise dispiriting news cycle? These are the questions to be asking as you plan for fitting your message into the news landscape in 2021.

 

We can all hope for a better year next year. But in reality, the crises that define 2020 are not over yet, and will likely impact every aspect of personal and professional life long into the new year. Our client has me convinced—resiliency is not enough. You need a communications plan designed to succeed in the worst of circumstances. Hopefully these ideas will help you get started. Have questions or ideas? Let us know—we’d love to hear from you.

– Ashley Allman, Director of Content

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