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Planning the unpredictable: Preparing your 2021 budget despite the uncertainty

Woman looking up with binoculars
Written by
Braedon Clark

Braedon Clark

Written by
Meagan Murdoch

Meagan Murdoch

Written by
Chief of Staff and Senior Director, Corporate Communications

Leslie Molko

Chief of Staff and Senior Director

Organizations reveal their priorities by deciding how and where they spend money. As the saying goes, “Follow the money.” The chaos and uncertainty of 2020 is (mercifully) almost over, but it raises important questions: How to budget for next year? How has the pandemic changed your organization and its priorities? How has it changed your customers or stakeholders’ expectations and behaviour?

These are questions we’ve been getting a lot, and we have a few thoughts about how to answer them as you build your marketing and communications budgets for 2021.

Back to the basics

With all the change and disruption caused by the pandemic, it is smart to stop and validate if your organization’s purpose and values are still the same before racing into a budget.

Ask yourself:

  • Who are we now?
  • Have we shifted?
  • How do we align our communications and the experiences we create to our values?
  • How did we meet, exceed or miss expectations during the past few months, and what do we need to keep doing or to do better?

Don’t forget about your people

This year has been very hard on employees. Adjusting to working from home, adapting to new safety processes, the uncertainty of the future, and being disconnected from routine have all taken their toll. Your goals won’t be accomplished unless your team is fully engaged and bought in. So, don’t forget to allocate resources to internal communications to engage and inform your team and colleagues. This could be a regular employee survey, an extra social event on the calendar, or a unique marketing campaign highlighting the strengths of your people. Whatever it is, don’t forget the people who make it all happen for your organization.

Ask yourself:

  • How are my team members/employees doing?
  • What can we do to make them shine?

Flexibility is paramount

When looking ahead to 2021, plan for virtual, hope for hybrid, maximize in-person. What that means is you must be practical and ready to turn around your plans. First, think about how your organization can communicate well in a virtual space. Then, think about how you can maximize those fleeting moments of face-to-face interaction, which are now more valuable than ever.

Nine months into the pandemic, organizations are expected to have adapted to the virtual world and all the opportunities and challenges it presents. Nobody knows what is coming next and it will be great if we can have in-person events again. However, you need to plan for virtual, if not hybrid events, in 2021. That means you need to nail down how to make virtual events as engaging and impactful as possible.

Ask yourself:

  • How can we ensure our virtual events are cost-effective? We tend to believe that they will be cheaper than in-person events, but it is NOT always the case.
  • How can we make a virtual event just as engaging as an in-person event? Do we need stronger visuals, sharper presentation, smaller and more personal engagement opportunities?
  • Can we build a budget that allows for two different possibilities: virtual events for all of 2021 or virtual events transitioning to in-person events at the end of the year?

Creative solutions to digital fatigue

We’re all tired of looking at the same screens and backgrounds every morning. Without personal interaction, the need for compelling creative content has never been more critical. The online space is incredibly cluttered now, and you need a way to cut through the noise with good creative and paid amplification strategies.

Be sure to build up your owned channels, invest in paid media, and focus on organic growth.

Ask yourself:

  • How do we stand out among our audiences and stakeholders?
  • Have we devoted enough resources to creative content, in addition to the budget needed to amplify the content?

Expect the unexpected

This is the most obvious lesson of 2020, but it doesn’t mean planning is useless. Instead, it means you must plan to be effectively reactive.

The days of 12- to 18-month plans that are set in stone are long gone. They were going the way of the dinosaur before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only hastened their extinction. Instead of thinking in terms of years, think in terms of quarters and include variations and scenarios. This doesn’t mean losing sight of the long game, but it does allow your organization the flexibility to evolve and adapt to the world around it.

This year showed the value of having issues and crisis communications plans in place. Now is the time to update your crisis plans, factor in training for new or current employees, and ensure that you’re prepared for the unpredictable when it happens in 2021.

Ask yourself:

  • What changes or disruptions are around the corner? Are there other that we might not expect?
  • Can our plans be changed if these disruptions become a reality? How can we adapt if we must?
  • Is our budget realistic but also able to adjust to change?
  • What are our biggest risks—our people, mental health—and how do we reinforce our prevention and intervention capacities, right now?
  • How can we monitor for simmering issues and address them before they become crises?

Go local

Because of the pandemic, people are more sensitive than ever to what’s happening near their homes. As a result, organizations can have a significant impact by supporting local businesses and their neighbours. And this isn’t just about being a good corporate citizen. If done in a thoughtful and meaningful way, this kind of work can positively impact your brand well beyond 2021.

Ask yourself:

  • Are we reinvesting in local media movement?
  • How are we supporting local business and BLM/BIPOC?
  • How are we highlighting our roots or positive impact at the local level and in our communities?

This is a lot to think about, but we’re here to help. NATIONAL has a network of experts from across the country who can help you and your organization plan, budget better, and avoid getting caught flat-footed. Click here to learn more.

——— Meagan Murdoch is a former Director at NATIONAL Public Relations

——— Braedon Clark is a former Senior Consultant at NATIONAL Public Relations