From fear to foresight: scenario planning in crisis communication

The article discusses how scenario planning can transform the paralyzing fear of the unknown into a strategic advantage for crisis communicators

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Dear reader,

Fear of the unknown can be paralysing.

For us crisis communicators, this fear is compounded by the weight of responsibility - the knowledge that our decisions can have far-reaching consequences for the communities we serve.

It's a daunting prospect that can lead to hesitation, doubt, and ultimately ineffective responses.

But what if there was a way to turn that fear into something more productive? Is there a way to harness the power of uncertainty and turn it into a strategic advantage?

That's where scenario planning comes in - a powerful tool that can help us navigate the unknown with more confidence and clarity.

In this update, I look at scenario planning and how it can be used in crisis communications.

We'll look at the psychological benefits of preparation and present practical steps to implement scenario planning in your workflow.

I look forward to receiving your feedback and ideas πŸ‘

PS: This is a long read, so sit down, relax, and enjoy.

Embracing uncertainty: the counterintuitive power of scenario planning

Imagine for a moment that you're a crisis communicator faced with an unprecedented situation - perhaps a global pandemic or a natural disaster.

The information is pouring in on you, and the stakes couldn't be higher. In that moment, the temptation to reach for certainty - to make a definitive prediction about what will happen next - can be overwhelming.

But here's the thing: in a complex, rapidly evolving situation, trying to predict the future with absolute certainty is a misguided approach.

It's like trying to predict the weather in a year's time - there are simply too many variables at play. And yet, that is exactly what many traditional forecasting methods try to do.

Scenario planning, on the other hand, takes a different approach.

Instead of trying to predict a single, definitive future, it embraces uncertainty by considering multiple possible futures.


"We don't know exactly what will happen, but here are a few plausible scenarios we should be prepared for."

This may seem counter-intuitive at first glance. After all, isn't the whole point of planning to reduce uncertainty?

In fact, scenario planning can help companies become more resilient and adaptable by recognising and preparing for uncertainty.

Take the example of the global oil and gas company Shell. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Shell used scenario planning to anticipate the possibility of an oil crisis - a scenario that many other companies had dismissed as unlikely.

When the crisis actually materialised in 1973, Shell was better prepared than its competitors and was able to adapt more quickly to the changing market conditions.

The lesson is clear: by embracing uncertainty and planning for multiple possible futures, companies can gain a strategic advantage. They can recognise opportunities and threats that others may overlook and are better able to react when the unexpected occurs.

Designing effective scenarios: A blend of art and science

How exactly does scenario planning work?

At its core, it's about identifying the key driving forces shaping the future and then using these forces to create a series of plausible scenarios.

This process requires a mix of creativity and critical thinking. On the one hand, scenario planners need to be able to think outside the box and imagine futures that may seem far-fetched at first glance.

This is where the art of storytelling comes into play - the ability to paint a vivid, compelling picture of what the future could look like.

At the same time, scenario planning also requires a rigorous, analytical approach. Planners must be able to recognise the key trends and uncertainties driving change and assess the potential impact and likelihood of different scenarios.

A common method is to create a scenario matrix - a grid that maps different combinations of the key uncertainties.

For example, a crisis communications team could create a matrix that takes into account the severity of a crisis (high vs. low) and the level of public attention (high vs. low). This results in four possible scenarios, each with its own impact and required response.

Scenario Matrix (simplified)

It's important to note that the goal of scenario planning isn't to predict the future with perfect accuracy. Rather, it's to develop a set of plausible scenarios that organisations can use to prepare for a range of possible outcomes.


By considering both extreme and more likely scenarios, planners can stress test their strategies and recognise potential weaknesses.

Ultimately, the success of scenario planning depends on the quality of the scenarios themselves.

They must be challenging enough to get the organisation out of its comfort zone, but also plausible enough to be taken seriously. They need to be diverse enough to cover a range of possibilities, but not so numerous that they become overwhelming.

Once again, this is where the art of storytelling comes into play. By creating scenarios that are vivid, memorable, and emotionally engaging, planners can help bring the future to life in a way that inspires action.

From paralysis to readiness: the psychological benefits of scenario planning

So far, we've focused on the strategic benefits of scenario planning - its ability to help organisations identify opportunities, mitigate risks, and adapt to change.

But there is another dimension to scenario planning that is often overlooked: its psychological benefits.

Remember the fear of the unknown we talked about earlier? The fear that can lead to paralysis and ineffective decision-making? Scenario planning can be an effective antidote to that fear.

When crisis communicators visualise different future scenarios and prepare for them, they can develop a better sense of control and ability to act.

They have more confidence in their ability to deal with whatever comes their way because they have already thought through the implications and developed contingency plans.

This sense of preparedness can be incredibly empowering. It can help crisis communicators stay calm and focused in the face of chaos and make better decisions under pressure.

It can also help to create a culture of resilience within the organisation as team members feel better equipped to deal with the unexpected.

However, the benefits of scenario planning go beyond reducing anxiety. It can also help to foster a mindset of adaptability and mental preparedness.

By constantly considering different possibilities and challenging assumptions, crisis communicators can become more flexible and open-minded. They can learn to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat and switch gears quickly when the situation demands it.


This kind of mental β€œcrisis agility” is becoming increasingly important in a world facing systemic risk 24/7

Philippe Borremans

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances can make the difference between success and failure.

Companies that had already conducted scenario planning were better able to respond to the crisis, whether by switching to remote working or realigning their business models.

Of course, developing this kind of mental readiness is easier said than done. It requires a willingness to constantly learn and grow and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone.

But the benefits can be immense - not only for the organisation, but also for the individual employees.

Putting it into practice: introducing scenario planning into your organisation.

Once you're convinced of the benefits of scenario planning, the next question is: how do you actually implement it in your company? Here are some important steps to help you get started:

1) Set up a dedicated scenario planning team.

This team should be cross-functional and include representatives from different departments and levels of the organisation. It should also have the support and approval of top management.

2) Define the scope and objectives of the scenario planning.

What are the key questions and uncertainties you want to explore? What time horizon do you have in mind? What decisions or strategies do you want to rely on?

3) Carry out thorough research and analysis.

This may include trend monitoring, stakeholder interviews, data analysis, and other forms of information gathering. The aim is to identify the most important driving forces that will shape the future.

4) Develop a series of plausible scenarios.

Using the information gathered in step 3, create a series of scenarios that depict a range of possible futures. Be sure to consider both likely and extreme scenarios and design them to be vivid and memorable.

5) Assess the impact of each scenario.

For each scenario, consider the potential risks and opportunities for your organisation. What would need to change in terms of strategy, operations, and capabilities?

6) Develop contingency plans and monitoring systems.

Based on the impacts identified in step 5, develop specific plans and actions that could be taken in each scenario. Also, set up systems to monitor key indicators and triggers that could signal a shift towards a particular scenario.

7) Communicate the scenarios and integrate them into decision-making processes.

Disseminate the scenarios within the organisation and use them as a tool for strategic planning, risk management, and other key decision-making processes.

It's important to remember that scenario planning isn't a one-off exercise, but an ongoing process. As the world changes and new information emerges, scenarios should be regularly updated and refined.

Integrating scenario planning into an organisation's culture and processes can be challenging, especially if it represents a significant departure from the status quo.

It may require training, facilitation, and change management to get everyone on board and familiarise them with the approach.

But the benefits can be significant. By institutionalising scenario planning, organisations can become more proactive, adaptable, and resilient in the face of uncertainty.

We, crisis communicators, can make better decisions, recognise opportunities that others may overlook, and ultimately better serve our stakeholders and communities.

Looking to the future with confidence

Ultimately, scenario planning is about more than just developing contingency plans or mitigating risks. It's about fundamentally changing our relationship with the future - from anxiety and fear to curiosity and confidence.

By allowing uncertainty and imagining multiple possibilities, we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and acting. We become more creative, adaptable, and resilient in the face of change.

This change can be particularly effective for crisis communicators. It can help transform the fear of making the wrong decision into the confidence of being prepared for whatever comes next. It can transform the paralysis of uncertainty into the momentum of proactive planning.

Of course, no amount of planning can eliminate risk or guarantee success.

The future will always be unpredictable, and crises will always be a challenge. But by harnessing the power of scenario planning, crisis communicators can face the unknown with more clarity and conviction.

So the next time you're faced with a scary crisis or an uncertain future, remember the words of the computer scientist Alan Kay:


"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Alan Kay

With scenario planning as your tool and foresight as your guide, you have the power to shape the future - not only for your organisation, but also for the communities you serve.


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Did you check out my crisis and emergency communication resources yet? You can download templates, checklists, and practical guidance on this page. You will find tools such as a Crisis Communication Plan Template, the Audience Canvas for Emergency Communication, and much more.

What I am reading/testing/checking out:

  • Webinar - Crisis Communications | Lunch & Learn, organised by VMA Group.

  • Webinar: I’ll be talking about using AI to create engaging crisis simulations on this Fluid webinar. There are limited seats, though. Please send a LinkedIn message to Cornelia Kunze the organiser, to see if there’s still a spot available.

  • Guideline: IPR’s AI disclosure guidelines for research reports and other content.

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