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25 May, 2012 - 06:28
Many projects fail to realise their benefits and one of the reasons given is poor communication. So how can communication help you get all your ducks in a row? Ann Pilkington clues us in.
By Ann Pilkington, Founding Director of PR Academy
One of the first rules of effective project communication is that it isn’t about ‘sending out stuff’. Too often it is assumed that simply telling people how great a new way of working is going to be will make them embrace it instantly and all benefits will be realised. If only…
Project communications is one of the most challenging of the communications disciplines. Practitioners are often isolated from other communicators, ambiguity is the norm (and we all know how hard that is to communicate), people around you talk in jargon and no matter what you do, the problem is always the communication.
However, project communication can also be very rewarding. Projects that have pace, can bring about real, exciting change and good communication that helps to deliver a successful project can give the practitioner the opportunity to shine.
So what does good project communication look like?
Right stakeholder, right time.
Be clear about which stakeholders you need to involve at each stage and what your approach needs to be. Set out a clear timetable for engagement. Then you can tell people when you are going to involve them and how.
Top tip: stakeholders will vary in importance throughout the lifecycle of your project, so review them regularly.
Take an engagement approach.
Employee engagement results from giving people a voice. But to make the most of that voice, employees need to know what is going on and why. So, accurate and timely information (not propaganda) is essential. And that voice must be listened to. Take a look at your project – how and when are employees involved? What are you doing to ensure that what they say is helping to shape what is done? Get it right and your change project could increase employee engagement.
Top tip: close the loop – ensure you let people know how their feedback is being used and, if it can’t shape the project, explain why.
Deal effectively with ambiguity.
Communicating change can be a difficult balancing act. It is important to start communicating as soon as possible, but you invariably won’t have all the answers from the outset. So what should you do? Well, you shouldn’t be afraid to tell people that you don’t have a particular answer. However, it is important to explain why you don’t. People need and like signposts. If you are waiting for some development work to happen or a decision to be taken at a board meeting, say so. Set out a process for reporting and keep people informed, particularly if timings slip.
Top tip: help managers to support their staff by ensuring they understand when and how decisions will be made.
Planning is everything, the plan is nothing.
Well, not quite nothing, but it is easy to get swept along on a tide of complex Excel spread sheets and Prince II methodology. Keep it simple and ensure you strike the right balance between developing the plan and its delivery. Set objectives, make them SMART and about outcomes (such as changes in behaviour) as well as outputs (e.g. how many newsletters have been issued). And get your project leadership team to buy into them.
Top tip: be careful not to be judged only on how much you do. The outcomes are what matter.
Keep it audience-centred.
There may be a number of parts to your project or lots of projects within your progamme, but what matters to your audience? Build your approach around them and their role. Ask what it means for a line manager, HR colleagues and operatives on the shop floor, then design your communication accordingly.
Top tip: there is no such audience as ‘all employees’.
Always think about the external implications too.
Is your project doing something that might be of interest to the media, or to politicians (local and/or national)? If you think it is, talk to your press office and come up with a ‘handling strategy’ together. The press love an ‘IT-gone-wrong’ story, jobs being lost – or gained – and anything to do with the environment. Be prepared. The chances are it won’t come to anything, but you will have the respect of your peers and your stakeholders if it does and you are ready and equipped to deal with the situation.
Top tip: no communication should ever be thought about as just internal. No matter what protective marking you put on it, what you communicate could end up anywhere, so always keep that in mind.
Tell a joined up story.
It is likely that your project is just one of a number of change initiatives happening across your organisation. How are employees meant to make sense of it all? You need to set your project in the context of what else is happening – tell one joined-up story rather than leave staff to work out how it all fits together. Doing this effectively means forging relationships with other communicators working on other projects and at a corporate level. You need to ensure that your project has an appropriate share of voice. For your project team it may be the most important thing in their world, but employees might have much bigger concerns.
Top tip: tell a story about your project to help employees make sense of what is happening.
Finally, be clear about the role of communication – it isn’t a substitute for good governance or line management. Importantly, it can’t make sense of something nonsensical. Sometimes the problem is with the solution being implemented and communicators need to be able to recognise this and push back when the expectation is on them to fix it. No amount of communication, however creative, can turn a dodgy solution into a good one.
About Ann Pilkington
Ann Pilkington is a founding director of PR Academy which designed and delivers the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Certificate and Diploma in Internal Communication.
As an independent communications consultant, Ann specialises in leading communications for major change programmes within the public sector. She has a particular interest in project communications and is currently writing a book on the topic that will be published by Gower next year.
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