How to plan for an unknown future

  • 29 Jun 2021

By AJ Sharp, Managing Director of Agency Sharp Relations

If there is anything the last 18 months has shown us, it is that we’ve got to be prepared for anything if we are to survive. No one could have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic, just how quickly it took hold of the world or how it would dramatically affect our lifestyle.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was famed for explaining the idea of there being known knowns – a situation you understand and have prepared for; known unknowns – a situation you know may arise but don’t yet know the details; and unknown unknowns – a situation so unexpected that you couldn’t possibly have considered. Covid-19 was an unknown unknown. This is not a new concept; in fact, scientists have long used this format when approaching theories and experiments.


Plan for the unknown

A good start in preparing your business for the future is to think about and plan a strategy for the known knowns, known unknowns, and even the unknown unknowns. Don’t try to say that after a few drinks! For example, a known known might be a seasonal change, a sporting event, an anniversary or a new product development. These are situations that are well within our control, they can be expected, therefore we can easily plan for them.

Homework: quickly jot down a list of events happening in the next 12 months which will have an effect on your business.

Planning for the known knowns should be scheduled into your marketing and communications strategy, working around special dates in the year such as planned activities, new products or openings, special offers or competitions. Communicating your strategically chosen known knowns through social media, your website, newsletters, and digital PR will assist in brand building, SEO and click-throughs.

A known unknown would be a situation that we might have anticipated but we could not have known the details, for example, you aren’t 100 per cent sure on the supply chain for a certain product and your packaging supplier has mentioned that they are conducting an investigation into provenance. You can’t possibly know which way it will go but you’re aware of the threat.

Homework: Write down every niggly feeling you have about your business, chat to your staff especially those who are client facing and make a list.

Identify risks

It might feel a little odd but the best way to plan for the known unknowns and any crisis PR is to look at your business and identify everything that could be wrong with your product or offering. Ask yourself the questions you never want a journalist to ask. Is this made with palm oil? Is this recyclable? Why do these people all have the same complaint?


This process not only helps to identify key areas that could be improved but also helps plan for a crisis in the future. Look at the values chain of your whole business, inspect every system, every process, all people involved and any environmental implications.

This is a deep dive on your ethics as a business. Is your packaging sustainable? Where are your ingredients sourced? Where does your energy come from? What is the CO2 output of your production process? Who are the people involved in this chain? What are the unsolved issues? What have you failed to consider?

Only once you have identified these issues can you put into plan an action to remedy the situation (or try to explain why you have been unable to change it). You can build a timeline for change and plan a PR or communications strategy.

Develop an action plan

In this new pandemic world, which seems more delicately balanced, planning for unknowns is more crucial than ever. When a crisis does loom; don’t panic, look back at your plan and take action to resolve the issue, then convey your plan and solution. Consumers appreciate honesty, swift action, and communication.

An unknown unknown would be something totally unexpected, for example, the business premises being damaged by an earthquake. Planning for the unknown unknowns is a little trickier. Covid-19, the lengthy lockdowns and the variable government subsidies have affected small businesses massively, but it has also highlighted the resilience and adaptability of small enterprise.


Adaptation and evolution have long been the winners and it is arguably easier for the grassroots companies to pivot and grow with the changing landscape. But even adaptation and evolution can benefit from a bit of planning.

So, the homework for this final stage is to look at your own business plan and the planning goals and objectives and from these, write yourself a strategic marketing and communications plan. It’s imperative that you are clear on what you are trying to achieve with a communications plan. It will help with all levels of knowns and unknowns, give you a strategic plan of action to fall back on should anything happen unexpectedly and give you peace of mind when you sleep at night.

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