Earlier this week, I described the air travel metaphor for nonprofit communications and marketing I have been using with coaching clients.

As a refresher, here are the basic ideas:

  • Programs and Departments = Airlines
  • Campaigns, Events, Projects = Airplanes
  • Specific Communication Needs, Messaging, Creative, etc. = Passengers
  • Comms Team and Workflows = Airport
  • Communications Director = Air Traffic Controller
  • Communications Channels (Email, Facebook, etc.) = Ground Transportation (Cars, Taxi, Bus, etc.)
  • Executive Director = FAA

Here are several ways I have used this metaphor to explain problems and solutions to people outside of the comms team and to help comms teams better understand their roles.

Why You Need Executive-Level Buy-In to Comms Planning

What if every airline could decide how many planes to fly and when to fly them without any regard to what other airlines are doing? It would be pure chaos with plenty of bad accidents. The FAA would never allow that to happen. Yet that chaos is what senior leadership teams create for their comms team when every program or department gets to decide its own comms needs without interdepartmental coordination and setting communications priorities organization-wide.

Recommended Tool: Big Picture Communications Timeline

Why You Need an Editorial Calendar

You can only land one plane at a time per runway. You have to space things out so everyone lands safely and so you can move those people through the airport and out into the world. Everyone has to share their flight plans and take turns. The same is true with your communications work. You can’t talk about all the things at once. You have to schedule it all out so the pacing makes sense both internally and externally.

Recommended Tool: Creative Briefs and Editorial Calendars

Not all Programs (or Airlines) Are Created Equally

At certain airports, one or two airlines will dominate the schedule of flights landing there. Sure, many other airlines will land planes too, but their capacity to use the airport is limited.  Some airlines have to fly smaller planes to make it work — not every flight is on a luxury jumbo jet. The same is true in nonprofit communications work, as hard as that may be to accept. Not every program that your nonprofit operates needs or deserves the same level of communications support. You need to think it through and divide up the comms capacity in a way that makes sense.

What About Basic Brand or Communications-Driven Work?

A lot of nonprofit communications work is driven by the communications team directly — there is a lot of overall maintenance and upkeep that goes into a robust communications program, so yes, a communications team has its own airline too. But I think of that more like a freight carrier like UPS or FedEx. That work tends to be much more predictable — even with seasonal rushes — and often happens in the background where most people don’t even see it happening. That is until something is missing or goes wrong.

Why Last-Minute, “Real Quick” and Unplanned Requests Are Such a Struggle

You know how a storm in one city can blow up the flights schedules for a whole region? The same goes for last-minute communications requests. Yes, you can work in an unexpected plane or one that is arriving a lot earlier than you thought, but you’ll have to make other planes circle a bit. Once they land, they might still need to wait for a gate before they can unload. What appears like a “real quick” request from a program person can actually be hours and even days of reworking the schedule for the comms department.

But What About Real Emergencies or Opportunities We Can’t Ignore?

Yes, in these cases, the air traffic controllers/communications directors can absolutely land that plane and land it now. But that means everything else shuts down and goes on hold until all those emergency vehicles are off the runway. You can’t declare emergencies every other day — that’s no way to run airlines or airports efficiently. You have to be strategic about when you shut down the airport to everything but this one plane. You are better off coming up with a rapid response protocol that helps you decide how you handle different types of emergencies, just like there is a difference in how air traffic controllers respond to an urgent call from a plane (PAN PAN) versus a distress call from a plane (MAYDAY).

Why Can’t We “Just Send It Out!?”

Program staff often get very impatient and want their work sent out via email or social media immediately. They are basically asking for the star treatment: They want the car (like email or social media) to meet them at a private part of the airport the second they land the plane and whisk their messages out to the public immediately. These are also the people who tend to be the most unprepared and obnoxious on the plane!

But it just can’t work that way. You have to prepare for the flight and then go through the screening, fly, deplane, walk through the airport, collect your bags, wait in line, then get the car. Your content likely needs messaging reviews, editing, design tweaks, repurposing into other channels, and it may need A LOT of that work.  There’s a process that all normal people — and most content — need to follow.

Fine, I Will Find Another Place to Land or Build My Own Airport

When non-comms staff refuse to participate in the comms department’s planning and workflow processes, they often threaten to land that plane elsewhere. But does that ever really work? Sure you can land a plane on the interstate (when staff go rogue and then comms has to clean up the mess) or invest in building a new airport (making a new and separate website, social media account, etc., which dilutes the brand and impact). These are rarely good solutions.

But Maybe This Program is So Different That It Really Needs Its Own Thing?

Again, this is rarely the case. But sometimes a different, very specific, and niche approach is called for. If you need a microsite or decide to use social media in a very specific way,  I’ll say that’s more like general aviation. Those planes are small, they don’t land at the big airport, and there’s minimal staffing and more do-it-yourself.

This is just a sampling of how I am using this metaphor. I could go on and on, and probably will in another post! For now, I hope you are starting to see how stressful the job of a communications director/air traffic controller can be. We comms folks need everyone in the organization — the airlines and the pilots flying planes — to understand the whole system and their roles in it.