Guy Fawkes night is a 400-year-old ritual, what rituals does your organization have?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night is an annual commemoration observed on the fifth of November mainly in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Before the pandemic, it usually involved parades, fireworks, bonfires, food, and children carrying straw effigies. The fireworks are a reminder of the gunpowder Guy Fawkes hid in the cellar of Parliament. The traditional cake eaten during Bonfire Night is Parkin cake, a sticky cake containing a mix of oatmeal, ginger, treacle, and syrup. Other food and drinks prepared for this night are sausages cooked over the flames, marshmallows, mulled wine, and apple cider with cinnamon. 

This event highlights the importance of traditions, as this is one tradition that has been taking place for over 400 years. In fact, it commemorates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 wherein Guy Fawkes was caught below in the cellars at the House of Parliament and was about to be hung, drawn, and quartered for his attempt to kill King James. However, he jumped and broke his neck before that. Although he was one of 13 conspirators, he was the one that was caught about to light 36 barrels of gunpowder, and it’s his capture that is celebrated today. The plot was masterminded by Robert Catesby, who was a Catholic figure that had a reputation for speaking out against the English crown which, at the time, was Protestant. As interesting facts, Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones and the gunpowder hero turn out to be distant relatives, and Guy Fawkes also has an island named after him in the Galapagos Islands. When Guy Fawkes was caught, he gave a false name, but he preferred to be called Guido Fawkes because he’d spent some time in Europe and wanted to be seen as more cosmopolitan. 

That same night Guy was caught, the Houses of Parliament searched the area to make sure that there were no explosives. On the State Opening of Parliament, the Yeoman of the Guard searched the houses below to make sure there were no more conspirators hiding in the cellars. This took place a long time ago, yet there is still a ritual being celebrated today in the same way companies have rituals that are part of the established culture within the organisation. This is very much what teams and sports coaches do; they create rituals. 

How rituals affect well-being

Photo from New Business Age

Research done by Paolo Guenzi published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013 analysed the impact of rituals on well-being in an organization, and they found that rituals, from the mundane coffee breaks and tea time to major less frequent events like annual meetings and retirement parties or celebrations, make a difference on how an organisation operates, because they create a culture and signals for everybody to know that their behaviour is recognised and is part of a common behavior pattern supported by the organisation. This research looked particularly at the rituals in sports and in their view, the importance of rituals can’t be underestimated. They say that successful sports coaches use rituals to build social bonds between team members. Gianluca Vialli, former player Chelsea and head coach said, "At Chelsea, we had an initiation ritual for newcomers. During the training camp at the beginning of the season, the new players would have to sit or stand on top of a table in front of all their teammates and sing a song that represents their country." 

Taking New Zealand as an example, they perform what is called a ‘haka‘ during rugby matches. This is a ritual that establishes their credentials and their team entity, but it’s not just sports organizations that have rituals. Within the SPEAK|pr program, which stands for Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and Know, storification creates the opportunity to have rituals to celebrate an event that has happened in an organisation. Grundfos, a pump manufacturer headquartered in Denmark, encourages team building by holding their own Grundfos Olympics, where their 1000 employees from over 55 countries attend. They have an opening ceremony, a Parade of Nations, and a grand finale. They create this amazing atmosphere and ritual. There’s no relationship between pump manufacturer and the Olympics, but there is between creating a sense of team, a sense of competition, and a sense of achievement, and these are all great qualities to have within the culture of the company as well. 

Photo from Grundfos

Rituals stimulate emotions, they reduce anxiety, and most importantly, they create a sense of team. Neuroscientific research shows that rituals trigger chemicals that include feelings of connectivity, timelessness, and meaning, which gets people to focus, to reduce anxiety, and to increase energy levels. Bosch, the automotive company from Germany, has a ritual borne out of the problem of managers turning up to meetings and not contributing or saying anything, simply taking instruction. Now, their practice is that whenever that happens, that person would get a yellow card and they have to leave the room. If that happens again, they get a red card and they’re not invited to the following meeting. It’s fair, and it gives everybody a guide as to the behaviour they need to adopt to conform to the culture of the company. 

Make rituals a part of the company culture

This Harvard Business Review report shows that leaders make extensive use of rituals. Companies can all create standardized rituals that will help members of the team, the partners, and the customers feel as though that they’re in the right place. It could be a ritual of any kind, as long as it is easy to understand, it is binding, and it creates a lasting effect, just like what Guy Fawkes did. The Gunpowder Plot is an amazing indication of just how central that event was to the mindset of the British people and how they felt about preserving the safety of Parliament as the seat of democracy. Saint-Gobain, the French industrial group, has this ritual before sales presentations or board meetings to ease anxiety among the presenters. They would touch each other’s asses and all scream together "Merde!" which translates to "Shit!" in French, and it would make them all smile, feel more relaxed, and get into the spirit of presenting. 

Another example of a ritual would be the elections, which is a ritual that has been taking place for many years. One of the reasons Trump is causing so much consternation is because his behavior is threatening the very ritual of America, which is that of a democratic and dignified contest every four years to see who leads the country. When it comes to public relations, these tactics are creating masses of coverage. Similar to Guy Fawkes, Trump’s challenge to the establishment may mean that he creates a new kind of ritual that gets repeated perhaps annually or every four years, depending on the side of the political fence. 

Rituals become part of the culture and fabric of society, but it can also become part of the culture and fabric of an organisation. It is an opportunity to create content, to form cohesion among the team, and to give a sense of the priorities and the focus of the business or the organisation. Reflect on the rituals that you enjoy and the ones that you don’t have but could create, so that other people have a sense of the importance of these activities within the time and the culture of the organisation. Again, rituals build a sense of culture, and they are also a great source of content for outgoing and ongoing communication. In the case of Guy Fawkes, people have had content for over 400 years from the same event. Now that is a great PR story.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Vox

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