By now you’ve heard about the Air Force One flyover in New York City that has turned into a PR train wreck for the White House. Those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds can learn from it.

What Happened

Someone wanted to get a money shot of the President’s office-in-the-air near the Statue of Liberty, which is a great idea.

Sadly, not many people knew of the effort and when the large airliner started buzzing Manhattan, chased by a military jet, residents became understandably — well, panicked.

The head of the White House Office of Military Affairs, Louis Caldera, has apologized and taken full responsibility.

I know Louis from back when I worked in politics in Los Angeles. He is one honorable, upright person and it hurts me to see him have to step up and take the hit. And I am proud of his response: “Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision,” he said. “While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, its clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”

Here’s an example of the distress:

But the incident could have been such a huge win for the Administration, if only they had listened to their own rhetoric a bit more. They only thought to notify the “authorities.”

Why didn’t they notify everyone else?

This flyover could have been a great 100-days-in win for President Obama. Imagine if the White House had simply let it be known through a press release and getting it out to social networks (like this Twitter account) and then built just a bit of buzz:

  • Have a “caption the photo” contest;
  • Set up viewing areas;
  • Have people use Google Maps to pinpoint where they will watch the flyover from;
  • Have a video contest, use a YouTube tag to collect them all;
  • Encourage people to Qik it.

My point is, this would have taken a little more energy — but only a small amount. And the payoff could have been high. It would have fed into Obama’s “technology” and “transparency” brand attributes.

From Neutrality To Delight

The prior notification of authorities was designed to ensure no one was too upset by the flyover.

Image taken with a cell phone by Jason McLane (via Associated Press)

Image taken with a cell phone by Jason McLane (via Associated Press)

But a different strategy would have made it so people were delighted by it. There’s a big difference.

When planning major moves, how often do you think, “How can I use this to delight people?” It’s worth keeping in mind.

In the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds, we spend a fair amount of time notifying our boards of decisions, or hoping that constituents and clients aren’t upset by a new policy change. Chances are that at least some of these could be turned around with the proper groundwork.

Today’s social networking tools are custom made to back this up. Used well, they make people feel a part of decisions and can even give people a role. It doesn’t have to be a big, or substantive role, either.

Next time you sit down to write heads-up memo, think about whether you can instead turn the moment into one of delightful anticipation.

Even if it works once or twice, you’re ahead of the game.