ORGANIZATION-WIDE APPROACH: McDonalds, Same Boat, or Glimmery Gospel Choir?

February 2024

I can still hear the combination of frustration and resignation as he sighed, “Sometimes they treat us like McDonalds.”

“He” was the head of communications, “us” was a large communications team, and “they” were every other department in a global organization.

“They might as well say ‘We need a report with a side of social media,’” he continued, “Or ‘I’ll have a press release, heavy on the quotes but hold the policy language.’”

And he was right. The various departments weren’t working together in a way that allowed for the communications team to contribute their expertise and ensure the work their colleagues had done reached and truly connected with the people who needed to see it.

Years later, I remembered that conversation when a colleague wrote me a quick email: “Just wanted to let you know we are releasing a report next Friday.” I was seven weeks into a new role and that was the first I’d heard of the report.

Now, if you’re in communications, you’re likely groaning already. Perhaps you have an inner monologue that sounds a bit like Ace Ventura. You can imagine the missed potential those 13 words convey, such as the fact the communications team had no role in:

  • The focus and framing of the report (i.e., clearly identifying the purpose and intended readership and planning accordingly, including length and tone);
  • The development of stories within the report (i.e., tangible, personal examples that help readers connect to the issue told in an ethical way that centers those whose stories are being shared, keeps them informed, and credits everyone involved, including photographers and videographers);
  • Editing to ensure the language is consistent with the organization's voice;
  • Setting a smart release date (hint: that’s usually not the Friday before people leave for the Thanksgiving holiday); and
  • Preparing a comprehensive release plan (hint: merely posting a report on a website and hoping people will find it doesn’t go well).

“Ah, this organization still uses the McDonalds model,” I thought to myself, then set about swimming upstream in our processes to shift to how working with a communications team should be.

“And how is that?” you might ask. Well, there was a time I’d reference “rowing in the same boat.” After all, that means an entire team is working together and moving toward the same destination. While that’s a vast improvement over taking orders that may nourish a project as well as super-sized fries nourished Morgan Spurlock, the more I learned about crew, the more I appreciated the sport – and the less I liked the metaphor.

For example, while a standard regatta (race) is 2000 meters, teams cover all distances at the most grueling pace they can handle. If you fall behind your teammates or don’t execute your part in perfect form, you might lose control of your oar and “catch a crab,” i.e., take an oar to the face or be thrown overboard, both of which can be painful and neither of which boost confidence. Beyond that, picture a crew team in their boat: everyone rowing relentlessly, save for a single person, the cockswain, who sees the group’s direction and destination.

Unfortunately, this metaphor is apt for some teams. Instead of “Oars away!” perhaps you’ve heard calls like “Fill up your social media feeds!” Rather than “Even up!” there might have been “Boost engagement!” I’ve seen demanding environments like this and am embarrassed to say I’ve likely contributed to them at times. Whether due to being under-resourced or because of a disconnect between expectations and bandwidth, this approach leaves little time for strategy (e.g., are the people you need to reach on the social media platforms you’re filling up? And is engagement translating into action?). This approach also expedites burnout.

So if not McDonalds or crew, what model should an organization use to promote effective advocacy communication? How can you share a vision and work together in a way that fosters collaboration? What model supports growth and allows everyone to contribute their own talents?

At Stories Change Power, we promote a model where everyone can “sing their part from the same choir sheet.” By “choir” we don’t mean a statuesque group in neat rows moving only their mouths as a director waves a baton with her back to the audience. We mean a gospel choir.

Whether Black, Bluegrass, Celtic, Country, Southern, or any other variety, gospel includes all voices of the choir. People come together through gorgeous harmonies, encourage creativity as they work together, and turn toward each other with enthusiasm when someone catches the spirit.

And have you ever seen the audience at a gospel performance? They can’t help but be drawn into the energy; you’ll see them clapping hands, stomping feet, and feeling moved to take action. This is the approach you want to see in your mission-driven organization:

Think of a choir’s call and response as communication and collaboration across departments.

Think of times when the choir lowers their volume so a soloist can shine as making time to hear all ideas.

Voices singing their parts from the same choir sheet yet improvising at times are like having everyone fully read in on your strategic plan yet able to pivot when opportunity arises.

In short, your communications team – like all teams – should be a partner from the very beginning and every note along the way. Or to quote what Kate Shatzkin, an expert communications strategist, says to leadership teams about ensuring communications is at the table not just to execute but also to co-create:

“When an idea is a glimmer in your eye, it should be a glimmer in mine.”

Of course, changing organization-wide approaches is a lot to ask of new and emerging professionals. That’s one reason we also host cohorts for leadership to understand to create an environment in which their teams promote effective advocacy communication together.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Photo credit: Haley Rivera (close up of people singing close together, several with hands outstretched)


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