There’s a quote, dubiously attributed to Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” I love the pith, but here’s the more flowery and accurate quote, from his 1874 novel The Gilded Age: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”

Whether your organization is 10, 50 or 200 years old, this probably isn’t the first time you’ve had to navigate some significant challenges. You may even regularly rehash those “antique legends” in service of “the pictured present.”

Every company has had its mountains to climb and dragons to slay. Maybe once a year, there’s a major event that has an impact on an entire industry. With corporate interests becoming increasingly global and interconnected, we also experience those once-per-decade or once-in-a-generation events that ripple across the world economy: oil shocks, wars, the global financial crisis. Just to name a few.

Periods of major uncertainty are nothing new—even as we overuse words like “unprecedented” to talk about today’s global pandemic, economic crisis, civil unrest and whatever tomorrow may bring. Uncertainty is a certainty. We’ve been through these seismic shifts before, and with the specter of world-altering events like climate change, it’s inevitable that we’ll be here again.

This may be cold comfort, but the good news is that there is actually precedent for these trying times—and the study and storytelling of how organizations made it through historic turbulence happens to be our business.

In aggregating and reviewing that inventory of corporate experience, we’ve noted the following historical “rhymes”—some of them seemingly obvious but worth repeating—that hold true in times of uncertainty:

  1. People crave strong leadership and clear messaging, especially when drawn from prior experience. “We’ve overcome adversity before, and we’ll do it again” instills much more confidence than, “This is totally unprecedented and there’s no playbook.”
  2. Being able to draw historical parallels to a current crisis depends on “knowing thyself” and understanding your organization’s heritage. Having a handle on concrete moments from various eras of company history is absolutely essential.
  3. Periods of uncertainty are vital times to revisit the company story and mine it for resonance with current events. This may entail shoring up assets and content that speak to founding values and core character. It may entail chronicling the most recent five to 10 years or even the present moment by capturing oral histories and other stories-in-progress. And it may entail speculating on different but plausible future scenarios.
  4. Using heritage is a parallel process to capturing history in real time. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand the myriad channels that your organization can use to communicate with target audiences and use the right deliverables for the right messages. A publication may be the right venue for making a bold, lasting statement, while a social media campaign or CEO video may be more appropriate for rapidly evolving messages that rely on speed and accessibility.
  5. Periods of volatility often coincide—for better or for worse—with other major organizational events such as corporate anniversaries, rebranding initiatives, leadership transitions or product rollouts. This should be viewed as a huge opportunity rather than “bad timing.”

Change and disruption are constant, and major global events can very quickly alter the best laid plans. Our case studies, our comprehensive Guide to Capturing and Using Heritage in Uncertain Times and our Real-Time History solution can help leaders and communicators develop a clear course of action to transform a volatile business environment into a catalyst for positive change.

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