What D-Day Can Teach Us About Nonprofit Communications

Normandy hedgerow; photo credit: Michael Arrighi, licensed under CC 2.0.

By Robert Bershad

The 75th anniversary of D-Day is a time to reflect on the Allied sacrifices and successes that secured our freedoms, including the freedom to learn lessons from what the Allies did – and didn’t doas they prepared for that day. An operation with the magnitude of D-Day has a lifetime of lessons to teach people from numerous disciplines, including nonprofit communicators. This is but one.

The Allies invaded the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day, after years of detailed strategizing, planning and building. The largest amphibious military operation in world history, it began the final drive that ended the Third Reich. To make it happen, the Allies assembled and coordinated hundreds of thousands of combat personnel, dozens of seaborne convoys, a complimentary airborne invasion, and millions of vehicles, weapons and equipment.

They brought all of that across the English Channel, in uncertain weather, and stormed the Norman beaches, which they divided into five sectors, each given a now-famous code nameGold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha. Braving a blizzard of fire and metal, they won great success on that famous day despite the inevitable battlefield mishaps and the terrible toll in human lives. News of it circled the globe.

And then they hit a wall. Actually, a hedgerow. In fact, a network of hedgerows, spread maze-like across the Norman countryside. Standing as boundary-markers since ancient times, Norman hedgerows were (and still are) densely packed mounds of soil crowned with thick shrubs. Though extremely old-fashioned, they were effective bulwarks against a 20th century military. They gave Third Reich troops excellent protection and position to project firepower against Allied troops, who suffered mightily trying to break through.

As prepared as they were for the beaches, the Allies were unprepared for the hedgerows, and paid dearly for it. Winning D-Day took a day. Breaking out of hedgerow country took several weeks and an appalling number of lives. It seems, looking back, that Allied planners had focused on the beaches of Normandy, but not the next step.

 “‘We were rehearsed endlessly for attacking beach defenses,’ a battalion commander later wrote, ‘but not one day was given to the terrain beyond the beaches, which was no less difficult and deadly.’” (Excerpted from The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Rick Atkinson, 2013 Picador.)

It’s almost callous to assign fault to Allied planners for this apparent gap in preparation. They were handling an unprecedented project of incomparable – almost incomprehensible – scale, complexity and importance. Better to appreciate what they did, digest it if possible, and learn from it. Here, one lesson to learn is about nonprofit event communications.

For nonprofit communicators, planning and executing communications for an event might feel like building up to D-Day. A lot is riding on it. An event showcases what is great about an organization and why it’s worth supporting. Successful event communications requires skilled deployment of numerous communications assetsnews and social media, graphics, web and print content, speeches and scripts, branding-discipline and much, much more, all pegged to a timeline. Attendee turnout and on-site experience are paramount. Multiple deadlines leading up to the event reign like overlords. The event is the thing. With all that, it’s easy to overlook the day after the event  – the next step. The hedgerow.

The hedgerow here is a wall of silence that absorbs all the momentum, messaging, resources and time invested into making the event a success. Silence will subsume an event if the communicators pat each other on the back when the event is over and do little or nothing more. It’s a natural and understandable human impulse to do that, but failure to communicate will prevent the organization from reaping the full benefits of the event.

In this scenario, it’s almost like the event never happened. Attendees will remember the event, maybeit’s a busy world. And that’s about it. Consigning all that an event expresses about an organization to silence is a loss. It is a loss of a precious opportunity to parade the value of the organization to prospective and existing supporters.

Not figuring out how to break through that wall ahead of time means figuring it out after the event is over. There won’t be enemy firepower trained on your position, but new projects with new deadlines will be looming. That’s a quagmire no communications professional wants.

Instead, get ahead of it during the event buildup. While developing event communications assets, devise ways to redeploy each asset for when after the event is over. For example, a video produced for the event audience may be a powerful communications tool to reach audiences who weren’t there. Framing the video in an email or on social media, or both, can make it all the more effective. Variations on this example – repurposing already-existing assets on different channels – are endless. Done right, news of the event might not circle the globe, but it will effectively reach target audiences.

Event communications don’t end with the event. It’s easy to forget that fact during the big buildup. During the buildup, assess communications assets for how to redeploy themstrategically after the big day. Building up to the next event might feel like building up to D-Day, but take a moment to consider post-event communications. Ask: What’s the hedgerow plan?

Robert Bershad is a communications professional.