Can a planner work in unprecedented times? Asks Ruth Yearley, director of insight and strategy at Ketchum

I have never heard the word unprecedented spoken so many times as I have in the past month or so. So often, in fact, that I sometimes find myself running it around in my head over and over until it loses meaning. There’s a name for this, I looked it up – it’s called semantic satiation. That’s one of the side effects of this social isolation situation, you have time to look things up. Anyway, I digress. That’s another effect of this situation, time to and a tendency to digress… but I can’t digress about digressing.

So back on track.

Unprecedented. We are living in unprecedented times; this is an unprecedented situation. Nothing to refer to, nothing to learn from, no conventions, no examples.

I am a planner. You could say that unprecedented and planning do not go well together. Planning is about understanding the world around you, the cultural canon, tropes, trends and traits. Using these to develop plans that help clients move forward in engaging and sometimes unexpected ways. We use the past and the present to help us manage the future.

So how should a planner adapt and flex in these in these unprecedented times?

A universal truth

Planners love psychographics and typologies. We like to pinpoint idiosyncrasies of attitude or belief or behaviour, that we can then harness to unlock problems. We like the differences between people. 

To misquote Leonard Cohen – planners like the cracks, because they are what lets the light in.

Now we are in a place where everyone is sharing the same situation. This is a chance not to look for what differentiates people, but what unites them, what they all have in common. It will be uncovering and understanding the elemental truths; hopes, concerns, fears, that everyone shares that will help us unlock how to communicate with them.

We will have to rethink humans

We talk a lot about what’s over the horizon, when this is over. But it will never be over, not really. I think we can hypothesise that when we get past this time in our lives, the fundamental human drivers and motivations are likely to have been altered. Values are likely to have shifted, aspirations recalibrated. We don’t know if people’s changed mindset will ever really return to pre-pandemic or will the emotional muscle memory have adjusted forever? Planners will be even more important to help navigate this new understanding of humans. 


The dreams we sell people; fulfilment, adventure, aspiration, indulgence, are likely to have changed in meaning. Planners will need to change their assumptions too.

Trust your instinct

As we go through this crisis, real-time data is so important. In a situation that changes minute by minute, that nimble intelligence is vital for us to keep our clients informed.

However, some types of research are unavailable to us. We can’t do focus groups whilst we are socially distancing, all consumer survey responses are skewed through the prism of the pandemic, people don’t know themselves how they are feeling, never mind be able to tell us. So, what should we do?

Before the richness of information brought about by the online data revolution; planners were feted for their instinct. Their ability to intuitively understand situations and come up with truths, to use the world as their database, use their relentless curiosity and innate human understanding to come up with insights. That instinct is a planner’s superpower and it hasn’t gone away. We will be called on more and more to give our clients counsel and we must trust our instinct in these unprecedented times.

Written by Ruth Yearley, director of insight and strategy at PR firm Ketchum London


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