air traffic control - metaphor for communications directors

Today I want to introduce you to a new metaphor for nonprofit communications and marketing work that I’ve been using for a while now with private coaching clients.

Think of our air travel system.

You have lots of different airlines with many different planes and people on those planes.

All of those airlines are trying to use the same airport.

Air traffic control at the airport lets planes know when they can land. Sometimes they make some planes circle so others can land first. Sometimes they clear the runways for an emergency landing.

At the airport, you have a runway or two, and several gates where planes land. Sometimes a plane lands but has to wait for an open gate before the people can get off the plane. After moving through the airport, people disperse in other modes of transportation into the world.

In the U.S., the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulates the whole system.

Now, let’s apply this to your work.  Can you think about which parts of this system represent the different people and concepts in your work?

Here is how I see it.

Each of your nonprofit’s major programs or departments is an airline. Each of them have many different projects or campaigns that need communications support throughout the year, and these are individual planes.

The passengers on those planes are elements of a good communications campaign: the messaging, the audience targeting, the creative collateral, etc.

The airport is your communications team and your workflows. Everyone on a plane — every piece of external communication — gets routed through the airport.  How that works — for example, which gates they land at — is governed by your workflows.

Once those people (messages) pass through the airport (your team and workflows), they can leave the airport and go out into the world via other modes of transportation, like taxis, buses, trains, etc. Think of these forms of transportation as your communications channels.

As the communications director, you are the air traffic controller for the airport. You need to decide which planes land when and where they pull up to a gate.

The FAA who governs this whole system? That would typically be the executive director.

That’s the basic setup.

In Thursday’s post, I’ll run you through some different scenarios that help illustrate some of the challenges of nonprofit communications work. But here are a couple quick ideas to get you thinking . . .

For example, what happens if too many planes are trying to land at once? (You have too many communications requests coming in at the same time).

Even worse, what happens if the airlines don’t coordinate with each other or share their flight plans with the airport? (You can imagine: complete and utter chaos).

What happens if there is an emergency and that plane really needs to land NOW? (You can make it happen, but all the other planes need to circle).

We’ll explore this more on Thursday in Challenges Nonprofit Communications Directors Manage Daily [Air Travel Metaphor].