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Communications people like to control things. We are far too good at our jobs to let on that we are control freaks, but it’s true. We control messaging, talking points, logistics, movements, who is in the room. We even try to control for the unexpected. While these are all important parts of doing our jobs well, especially in a crisis, sometimes we need to let go.

I lead communications at ITHAKA, a non-profit organization that aims to improve access to higher education and knowledge through the use of technology. I received an email a few weeks ago from one of our software developers and a quality assurance engineer. They were planning a three-day hackathon and wanted to invite everyone in our organization to participate—about 350 people across four office locations plus remote staff. The focus was on helping people better understand and engage with our vision for our research and teaching platforms, JSTOR and Artstor. They said that a hackathon seemed like a good way to get closer to what we are trying to build and to generate ideas for how we can deliver a great next-generation experience for the faculty, students and members of the public that use our platforms. And they asked if my team could help with the communications.   

“Organization-wide event” and “vision” are two words that can easily set off a communications professional’s control alarm. Imagine you get an email from two university employees organizing a campus-wide event for your entire staff to explore your school’s vision of the future. What do you say?

In these moments, we must provide help but also fight the instinct to take charge. Like many organizations, mine is working to find ways to empower our staff, to encourage problem-solving with teamwork, and to inspire everyone to do their very best. We want people to be able to run fast on their own, which means giving them space to take risks and try new approaches, while having confidence they will pursue our organizational goals in ways that will have positive impact. 

Similarly, on college and university campuses we want our leaders and people to run, and while we may not want them to fall down and scrape a knee, we need to encourage them to try. When colleges and universities hold town hall meetings, it can be tempting for communications pros to heavily script campus leaders, but better results might come from setting the stage for a true and civil exchange of ideas. In other contexts, particularly when there is controversy on campus, it can feel risky to bring together an institutional leader with students in different settings. We need to encourage these interactions, understanding there is real value in connecting with students where they are: swim practice, morning jog, dining facility, etc. As communications leaders, we can play an important role by encouraging, equipping, and supporting people. It can be challenging, but it pays off.

Our communications team did just a few things to try to make the hackathon a success. We edited an invitation and a post the organizers wrote for our in-house blog, which included a video to promote and provide background on the event. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. We wrote a short note to our leadership team to give a heads up about the event and encouraged them to support their teams participating, and we asked our president to write an all-staff email with the same intent. Finally, we put out an org-wide call for anyone who might be interested in writing about their hackathon experience. We weren’t sure what we might get, but we wanted to know who was eager to try their hand at writing and sharing what they learned. Maybe we’d find an outlet for it down the road.

The hackathon turned out to be a great event. With just two weeks of notice, we had 150 people work as part of self-organized teams that developed 30 ideas. At the show-and-tell at the end of the third day, it was inspiring to see the amazing array of prototypes. Beyond the value of the specific hacks, everyone was energized, worked with new people, and most importantly, felt closer to and more knowledgeable about where we are trying to go and how we might get there. 

An important part of our role as communicators is to help connect our staff to our mission and vision and to help them feel engaged, which equates to success. Achieving better employee engagement and having more people excited to share their experience about our organization with the work led by staff from diverse teams? I’ll take it.

Communications pros may already know that our job is done best by empowering and encouraging others and are comfortable providing just a bit of guidance and support and letting them run. But for those times we still have control tendencies, remember this: when the email or call comes in, take a deep breath, relax and ask (don’t tell), “How can I help?”

Heidi McGregor is vice president of communications at ITHAKA.

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