By Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA
Humans are naturally curious about the future. We want to know what the future holds for us, for our families and our communities. We talk about it. Debate it. Write about it. We create communications such as books, movies, plays and TV shows to express possible futures. We predict and forecast. We worry and we hope about it.
Because organizations and the industries in which they operate are complex systems that adapt to change, the stakeholders to which you’re communicating on behalf of your organization want to know how your organization perceives the future, how it will adapt to change, and what it’s doing now to achieve a desired future.
Employees want to know if their organization will be a great place to work not just today, but several years from now (should they continue to invest in their career with your organization or go somewhere else?). Customers, especially those that invest in products and systems that will need long-term support, want to know if your organization will be around five or 10 years to serve their needs. Competitors want to know where your organization is headed and how new product innovations, mergers, or acquisitions, will impact the future of your industry.
Whether you realize it or not, from time to time, your organization is invited, and sometimes forced, to speak to the future. Analysts seek forecasts, business media ask about company projections, influencers look for insights on consumer trends. Understanding how your organization thinks about the future is critical to communicating clearly to various stakeholder groups.
Applying some basic foresight concepts, how can you communicate the future more effectively for your organization? Here are some tips to consider:
1. Inventory how you’re already communicating the future – Chances are that your organization already is communicating the future through vehicles such as annual reports, forecasts, conference speaking opportunities, and media interviews. As a communicator, inventory all the many ways that your organization is sharing views about the future and who is speaking about the future for your organization.
2. Develop a cohesive message strategy about the future – Your organization probably has specific messages about its brand(s), products, or about specific industry issues, but do you have a key message strategy for the future? Consider developing key messages that envision where your organization will be in five, 10 or 20 years from now for itself, as well as for the industry in which you operate. While there are many possible futures, focus on the most desired future, aligning it with your organization’s stated vision, mission and values.
3. Scan the Future – Within the communications function at your organization, set up a process to scan for change. Scan the media for news of disruption and trends, conduct stakeholder surveys, network with industry influencers to gain insights, seek out scholarly papers – signals of change are all around us and can help enhance how your organization communicates about the future. Use this scanning process to alert your organization’s leaders about possible near-term and long-term changes that may affect the organization. For example, let’s say you work for an organization that sells products to hunters. The growth in eSports among Alpha Gen (today’s youth) may concern your company as it may signal a long-term decline in hunter participation.
4. Keep it human – While talking about technology or futuristic events is sexy, what people really want to know is how will change affect their lives. Frame variables of change in human terms. For example, as our country transitions to renewable energy (wind, solar, hydrogen, etc.), what will that change mean in how we heat our homes, drive our cars, or obtain power to keep the lights on for our small business.
5. Understand assumptions – How can we communicate the future when we base perceptions about the future on assumptions? Even within an organization one department may perceive the future of the organization or the industry differently from another department. For clear communications, it’s critical to understand how different stakeholders view the future.
6. Create conversations – Communicating the future of an organization is at its essence, about storytelling – creating a narrative that takes your organization from today to tomorrow. To tell the most powerful story, it’s fundamental to get people talking about the future to hear those voices and to gather the insights to create a clear yet inclusive story. Consider holding listening sessions and workshops among your stakeholder groups to invite conversation about the future to inform how your organization speaks about the future.
7. Imagine the unimaginable – Most organizations create plans for the coming year. Hours upon hours are spent in planning retreats. While it’s important to address the most urgent issues, take time to imagine the unimaginable. What if a country opposed to Western nations cut undersea cables that connect people worldwide through the Internet? What if another, more severe pandemic hit our country? What if the Supreme Court were to rule on a case that affected a group of your employees or customers? What would your organization do in these or other potential events?
8. Embrace the future – Thinking about the future is a mindset, and it takes time to develop. To help everyone in your organization get there, take small steps to incorporate the future in your organization’s communication. For example, many organizations do a year-in-review or annual report. How about doing a year-ahead report or a 10-year outlook? For that next planning retreat, invite staff to imagine where your organization will be in 10 years.
9. Talking about the future makes for great content – Creating content offers a powerful opportunity to position your organization as a thought leader. Leverage your owned media, internal communications and external communications to share stories about trends, to draft bylined articles in business and industry trades about variables that may affect your industry, or to create videos and podcasts about the impact your organizations wants to have on the future.
There are many futures ahead. There’s a future where your organization is 10x larger than it is. There’s a future where it’s acquired by a competitor. There’s a future where it’s smaller than it is today. Within all of these futures, there’s a preferred future – the future that your organization wants for itself, its industry and the communities it operates. Your stakeholders want to know what your organization and its leaders want for itself. Be bold, be clear, and be transparent – define and communicate what you want for the future.
Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations and branded content with the Minneapolis creative firm Pocket Hercules (pockethercules.com). Dupont writes and speaks frequently about the intersection between communications and foresight. To learn more about Dupont, visit his blog at stephendupont.co or email him at email@example.com.