Communicating projects the social media way

8 February, 2013 - 12:16
Social media can be a great way to communicate projects if it's done with clear objectives and with a strong understanding of your project team. PR Academy Director Ann Pilkington presents several top tips to ensure success.

By Ann Pilkington

Project communication and social media seem like natural bed fellows; projects usually move at a fast pace lending themselves to the speedy dissemination of information that social media makes possible.

So how can those communicating projects use social media to the best effect when communicating internally?

Don’t get too focussed on the technology

With many change projects being IT-enabled, it can be easy for the IT enthusiasts to focus on the technologies rather than the content or the objective of the communication.

As with any communication activity, the important thing is to start with the objective – what do you want to achieve? Who do you want to engage with? Social media tools might be the answer – but it is equally possible that they aren’t. I worked on a project in the early days of SharePoint where the project manager was a real social media enthusiast and decided they were the tools the project team needed to be using. We were all given a half-day’s training which made us feel fairly confident that we knew what we were doing, but nobody ever actually used social media. Why? Because we all worked on the same floor of the building, saw each other everyday and communicated very effectively face to face. It was a classic example of tools being introduced without a clear objective for using them.

Understand your team

In her chapter on using social media for Exploring Internal Communication, Tracy Playle of Picklejar Communications makes the point that you need to know your audience when thinking about using social media – just as you would consider your audience when carrying out any other form of communication activity. But, she continues, you also need to consider a few extra things as well:

• Team members’ current use of social technologies: this will help you to understand how ready they are to embrace such technologies

• Attitudes to privacy: this will help you understand what activities online will be acceptable or unacceptable

• Access to technology: project team members without easy access to technology can feel alienated if everything is communicated in this way

• Attitude towards the organisation/project: do team members feel confident in expressing ideas and opinions in such an open way?

Understanding the above can help you to devise the best way to introduce social media within the project.

Get ready to be open

The great thing about using social media within project teams is that information can be shared quickly and in an understandable way. Wouldn’t it be great to get the project/programme manager or senior sponsor to blog before and after the monthly board meeting? Project board meeting minutes, highlight reports etc are all essential but don’t always make the most exciting read. A quick personal view on key decisions that will be discussed and the outcome could be welcomed by the team.

Of course, this means project leaders being comfortable with sharing personal views and communicating in a more informal way. This is where the project communicator can help. Help doesn’t mean writing the content for the project leaders. It means coaching them in the use of the most appropriate writing style, helping them to understand how to strike the balance between being open and honest and not divulging commercial information or other sensitive content.

Understand the organisation

Social media won’t work if people aren’t prepared to be open (within sensible parameters of course) and this is often dictated by the culture of the organisation. If your organisation hasn’t already embraced a more open approach to communication through social media, you may struggle to make it effective.

Take small steps, don’t launch a project manager blog if it is likely to end up being seen as overly corporate, one-way communication – it will lose credibility. Better not to do it at all until you feel it can be done in a spirit of openness.

It can seem threatening to the project or organisation if someone is critical in an open forum, but the way criticism is handled can make a tremendous difference to how the project is perceived. Every comment deserves a considered response that demonstrates clearly how the project leaders welcome criticism and are happy to take comments on board where they can.

Don’t start what you can’t finish

Project team members will have to make time to engage with social media – perhaps responding to questions, blogging etc. It is easy to start out with enthusiasm; the trick is to maintain it. Project communicators can assist here by helping to introduce some structure: a plan of what content is needed and when, scheduling time in people’s diaries, suggesting ideas for content and helping with the actual posting. The key is to make it as easy as possible for project leaders to participate. Try to make it enjoyable too. People will be flattered if lots of the team have read their blog, for example, so make sure that they are seeing the numbers and the feedback.

This might sound as though the spontaneity that is often a feature of social media is lost, but this isn’t the case – there is still room to respond to events and changes outside of the content plan.

What tools will work and how?

Projects benefit from collaboration. A tool such as a Wiki is designed for just such a purpose. Wikipedia is the best known example. Content uploaded to these platforms can be edited by anyone with the necessary permissions and are useful for collaboration on documents or collecting background information on a topic.

Blogs and microblogging are a great way to keep the team informed about decisions and changes.

Every project needs a ‘who’s who’. Many platforms allow the building of profiles. Encourage team members to upload pictures and enough information about themselves to help colleagues get to know them.

Remember too that it is fine to use a mix of traditional channels and social media – posters, team information boards in the coffee area – it all comes back to understanding your project team and having a clear objective in mind from the outset.

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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.

www.pracademy.co.uk