Communications as a strategic PM function

Abstract

As information technology becomes more and more enmeshed in every aspect of global business, we increasingly hear about the need for chief information officers and their teams to gain a better understanding of the needs of business executives and to understand how best to communicate with them. This poses a major challenge. And since project management is a profession that emerged primarily from the technical disciplines of engineering and technology, it poses a major challenge for the project manager as well. Project managers have typically been highly technically proficient and very good at motivating a team. The disciplines associated with communications and marketing, however, are quite foreign. As more and more project managers gain a place at the table with business executives, these skills become increasingly critical. It is no longer sufficient to have a communications plan built around providing the appropriate status reviews at the right point in the governance process. Instead, project management offices must take a proactive approach to actively marketing their project goals to the wider organization and to other stakeholders beyond their organization if they want to keep their funding, maintain focus on their efforts, and, ultimately, ensure success.

Introduction

Browse the technology press from the past few years and one theme will emerge loud and clear—it is essential to earn a seat at the table. As technology executives have struggled for relevancy in the wake of Internet hype, they have increasingly realized the need to learn the language of business and to create connections to business executives through more and higher quality communication. In fact, according to the Meta Group (Rubenstrunk, 2002), communications, as a discipline, has become so important that it should be part of every CIO organization.

Project management is ripe for a similar transformation. While project managers have always practiced their own brand of communication, it has been a very precise form of responsive communications, following the prescriptions of project management methodology and nearly always subservient to other project management disciplines. The communication environment, however, has become much more complex—between e-mail, Intranets, extranets, increasingly targeted and aggressive direct marketing and a proliferation of magazines, online content, and newsletters—creating more and more demand for stakeholder attention. Given this reality, new perspectives, skills and methods are called for that reach beyond the traditional boundaries of project management discipline.

From Active to Proactive

The State of Project Communications

Frequent communication has always been a critical component of the project manager's role—but the question is, what form should that communication take? A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK® Guide) asserts that communications management consists of: (2001, PMI, p8)

  • Communications Planning
  • Information Distribution
  • Performance Reporting; and
  • Administrative Closure

While these disciplines are perfectly adequate for coordinating activity and informing team members of project status, they belie a myopic focus on the immediate project team and its most obvious stakeholders.

Let's look at an example communications model from one project's toolkit (2000, PMBoulevard.com).

The sample toolkit includes the following artifacts: Progress Turnaround Report; Work Plan Update; Weekly Status Meetings; Summary Status Reports; Enterprise Level Program Performance Summaries; and War Room Contents. (Robbins-Gioia, 2000) In terms of communicating with executives and workers directly connected to a project, it's comprehensive. The model even includes the structure for weekly meetings and the communication outputs from those meetings: (Exhibit 1)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Impressive. Especially if your questions centre around what is getting done, who is doing it, and when it's going to happen. But what if you have other questions?

I am not suggesting that the kinds of project communications contained in status reports and executive briefings are irrelevant. Quite the opposite. They need to be well done so they can create a strong platform on which more sophisticated and proactive communications can be built. But the goal of project communications in general must be questioned. Many project managers would probably agree, “the goal of project communications management is the accurate and timely collection, dissemination and storage of information” which helps “all people in the project communicate in the same project ‘language.’” (Polar Bear Corporate Education Solutions, 2004, p4) But what about the people outside of the project? Couldn't they be relevant? And what about the effect of external communications on the project team?

Redefining the Stakeholder

We all know that poor communications can kill a project. According to one survey, it is the third most common cause of project failure (Matteucci, 2001). But what about those projects that create their own self-contained world? Inside of the project's bubble, everyone is very clear about project goals, status, its relevance to the organization's strategy, and its potential impact on world events. Outside of the bubble, no one even knows what the acronyms mean.

In order for a project to get funding and be initiated, it probably has an established link to the organization's strategic objectives. Unfortunately, once the project is started, that link to strategy is often forgotten. One management tool that has gained increasing acceptance over the past several years can prove helpful in sustaining that strategic focus—the balanced scorecard. The balanced scorecard approach is important in defining links to strategy, but it also helps by identifying the long list of possible stakeholders for an organization's strategic initiatives.

Let's consider an example. If your project is the implementation of a new financial system, you would certainly think of stakeholders, such as the executive who funded the project, the accounting department, and other users of the system. It's important, however, to consider why the project was funded and what its broader impacts might be. Perhaps the reason for the new financial system was concern among the stockholders and potential investors that the company's financial information was inaccurate. Maybe they had received bad press or customer complaints because of inaccurate bills. It could be that they were trying to streamline internal processes to increase profitability and make their employees’ salaries more competitive.

Each of these possible scenarios calls for a different communications strategy—one that stretches beyond basic project communications. These messages that will reach broader audiences such as stockholders, potential investors, customers, prospects and employees will also be helpful in gaining increased buy-in with senior executives. There has been some recognition of this need in the business press, but it still hasn't gone far enough. According to GartnerGroup's Tech Republic, “[Project Communications Management] is another area that often gets short shrift in compressed projects, to the detriment of the end result. Experienced project managers understand that creating a compelling marketing message for the project, preparing the user community to accept and embrace the new technology, and keeping stakeholders and sponsors informed and involved throughout the life of the project are key success factors.” (Freedman, 2002, p2) This is a good start, but again, it addresses primarily the first ring of stakeholders around the project bubble (users and sponsors), not the broader potential stakeholder community.

Overcoming Information Overload

One of the basic realities of the current work environment is a tremendous inflow of information. We all have so many information sources, and we're bombarded with e-mails, marketing messages, and other demands on our attention. Over the last decade or so, it has become increasingly difficult to capture attention—the rule of thumb in marketing used to be that a prospect needed to see or hear a message three times before they paid attention, now it is between five and seven (MarketingProfs.com, 2004).

In this environment, it is essential to be very clear about what message you want to send and to reinforce it consistently. This is one place where typical project communications fall down. While the full details of project status are useful for those intimately involved in a project, the details are likely to confuse the message for executives and the larger stakeholder community. The keys to reaching those audiences are a focused message and delivering the communication at the right time.

It is essential to remember that perception is often more powerful than reality as well. To prove this point, let's consider the differences between the Standish Group study of project failure, and Tarnow and Frame's more recent validation of study. The Standish study found that only 16% of projects were technically successes— defining success as meeting cost, time and requirements targets. When Tarnow and Frame replicated the study, they found that this was accurate—only 12% met those three targets. However, when the question was, “was your project successful?” over 75% of respondents from that same group of projects responded in the positive. The important thing here is that the stakeholder perceptions of project success often outstripped the actual data about the project. (Frame, 2003)

The PR and marketing effort around a project must recognize this reality of information overload and try to move the perception needle in a positive direction. To break through the information clutter, the message to stakeholders must be simple and consistent, and it must also use the channels that will have the greatest impact on the intended audience.

Sean Gorman has put forth an excellent theory of information networks as they related to communication inside the project bubble. He relies on the concept of “six degrees of separation” to show how a few “well-connected nodes” can create an ideal information flow: “When we look at a project as a network, the obvious well-connected node is the project manager. The project manager needs to be linked to all the nodes in their network, but all the nodes in the network do not need to be connected to each other for the network to communicate efficiently…The project management nodes need to be linked to everyone in order for the network to efficiently distribute communications throughout the team.” (Gorman, 2001, p3)

Gorman extends this concept somewhat by noting: “Your project network does not act alone. Your firm, project stakeholders, partners, collaborators, and competitors all form networks that interconnect with yours at different levels. Understanding how your network interconnects with your neighbouring networks can be a crucial insight…Networks, by their nature, initiate communications. Only by initiating your own messages to fill the bandwidth can you control them.” (Gorman, 2001, p3) What he does not consider, however, is where those messages should be directed. Selecting the message and sticking with it is absolutely the first step. But finding those external “well-connected nodes” is also critical. Volume of communication is not the answer here; the project communicator must find the most efficient and influential communication mode to create positive perceptions. This may lead to unconventional modes of communication, but if stakeholders are more likely to listen to, say, Gartner analysts or CIO magazine journalists than to their own company newsletter, that may be the more efficient communication node.

Creating the PR and Marketing Infrastructure

Situation Analysis

Before creating a strategic communications plan for a project, it is essential to analyze the situation. As discussed above, ideally the links with the organization's strategy and key stakeholders for the organization have already been established, either through a generic strategic planning process or a balanced scorecard approach. These items should establish major goals, key audiences to influence and current perceptions of those audiences.

Whether these artifacts pre-exist the project or not, it is smart to identify layers of stakeholders (employees, executives, customers, investors, the general public, etc.) and check them against the project goals. Useful questions to ask at the outset are:

  • What are the stakeholder groups that interact with my organization? (think broadly)
  • What are the organization's key strategic goals?
  • How does my project connect with those goals?
  • What is the relationship of each stakeholder group to the strategic goals connected with my project?
  • What do we want those stakeholder groups to know about this project?
  • When should we tell them? (What are the triggers/milestones in the project that would warrant a communication to each of them? You want to think through this one for each stakeholder group.)
  • What are the current perceptions of each stakeholder group related to the key goals?
  • How do we want their perceptions to change?
  • What communication vehicles do those stakeholder groups value and what tactics have worked to influence them in the past?

This assessment may seem daunting, but it is likely that most of this information is available in strategic planning or market research artifacts within the organization. It would be very easy to get too focused on this step and stretch it out beyond its usefulness. Broad-based, highly scientific market research studies are probably not called for here. Talk to people inside of your organization and work through these issues. If it becomes clear that something is truly an unknown, conduct some informal interviews to gain a better understanding. The important point is to work through the process and to be clear about who you want to influence and why before you begin crafting communication tactics.

Planning

Once this “as-is” analysis has been established, the project communicator must create a campaign to influence perceptions by developing specific tactics for each stakeholder group that are designed to move them closer to the desired mindset. Armed with an understanding of the relationships between the project, the project stakeholders, the corporate goals and the corporate stakeholders, it becomes possible to prioritize those stakeholder groups and develop distinct yet interrelated tactical plans for each audience.

Using the prioritized stakeholder groups, the project communicator should develop “key messages” for the project that convey critical information—what it is, why it is important, and how it will be/has been implemented. These should be straightforward, non-technical, based on reality, and short. It may be necessary to also develop sub groupings of key messages that are specifically designed for certain stakeholder audiences, but they should be clearly aligned with the overall key messages for the project.

Next, the project communicator should develop a comprehensive marketing and communications execution strategy, incorporating the key messages into a full range of marketing tactics that are appropriate to each audience, such as conferences, tradeshows, electronic communications, collateral, direct marketing, in-person “road shows” and Q&A opportunities, and public relations strategies. It is critical at this point to maintain a focus outside of the project bubble, identifying external trends and activities that may be related to project goals, and considering the real “hooks” that will capture the attention of stakeholders.

Timing is also essential, and here's where traditional project management comes back into the process. It may be that certain milestones deserve strategic communications. For instance, the first successful pilot of a new technology implementation might be a great opportunity for a case study, which can then be used immediately for internal PR (perhaps a celebration where the new users share their experiences with future users), and then employed for external PR to gain critical momentum (submission for technology best practice awards, pitching to the technology press, capturing speaking engagements about the success, etc.) that will build confidence among stakeholders outside of the project bubble. These communications must be a key component of the project plan, so that they can occur at strategic points in the project and ensure that they further the project's goals rather than becoming obstacles.

Regardless of the specific communication activity, each tactic should focus on one or more of the target stakeholder audiences, send a clear message, communicate in a way that stakeholders will understand and appreciate, and be consistent with all other communications. The ultimate goal is to use this consistent strategic communication to establish a positive relationship with all stakeholder audiences and build confidence and credibility for the project team.

Of course, no program is successful if that success cannot be measured. The development of metrics at the outset, that establish a baseline and track progress, is key. Some of the typical measures of effectiveness for strategic communication around projects are:

  • Comparison of “as is” awareness with current state at various points in the program,
  • Awareness surveys to measure recognition before and after milestones,
  • If the project attempts to influence employee or customer satisfaction, satisfaction surveys to determine how happy those groups are with the project's progress and/or outcomes,
  • Number of stakeholder contacts or “touches”,
  • Changes in Internet/Intranet traffic on the topic, if applicable,
  • Reduction in complaints and/or help inquiries, if applicable,
  • Number of speaking engagements captured, media pick-ups,
  • Response level to internal/external marketing programs.

Throughout the project lifecycle, these metrics should be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the communications program—and to make changes to tactics, when appropriate.

Staffing

While this process may seem daunting to many project management professionals, the reality is that most organizations probably have a wealth of resources at their disposal already. Ideally, the project office will have at least one member who is charged with project marketing/PR and has a professional background in those areas, but even without that, there is probably a group in your organization who would be thrilled to be involved with the project as intimately as this approach suggests. Again, the key is to look outside of the project bubble.

In your organization, regardless of its mission, someone is charged with “getting the word out.” That may be Marketing, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Investor Relations—even Strategic Planning, Sales or Customer Service. The professionals in that department probably have the contacts, the professional experience, and the knowledge to strategize about how to do communicate with various stakeholder groups. It is essential to value those skills as unique and important to your project's success.

Too often, project managers take the weight of the world on their shoulders in this area when there are abundant resources to help them out. You may even have resources standing ready from outside of your organization. If you're deploying a technology, the vendor may have resources to help you. If you're creating a product that will be marketed through another organization, that channel may have resources. Ask for help and engage the skills and resources of your entire organization, and the entire network of partners, customers, vendors and others as you build and execute on a strategic communications program to further your project's success.

Conclusion

The world has changed dramatically in recent years, and project management can't afford to remain static in any area—especially one that has been so radically transformed as communications. It is no longer enough to adequately communicate within the project bubble. Project managers must become strategic evangelists for their projects in the greater stakeholder community and take on the often-frightening task of marketing and public relations for their projects.

The reality that these skills are typically foreign to project management professionals doesn't negate the necessity of their implementation. The Dilbertesque environment, in which the ivory tower of Marketing is constantly at odds with technical project teams, can be alleviated by building strategic communications into the project management process and harnessing the value of marketing and public relations skills as a strategic asset that will build momentum, increase visibility and ensure that projects are clearly linked with strategic goals in the minds of critical stakeholders.

References

Company D Toolkit. (2000) Robbins-Gioia, 2000, Retrieved from PMBoulevard.com

Frame, D. (2003, November) Breaking Murphy's Law: Building Project Management Competence. Paper presented at the e-gov Program Management Summit, Washington, DC.

Freedman, R. (2002, August 7). Encourage success by following PMI's knowledge areas. Tech Republic. Retrieved March 3, 2004, from http://techrepublic.com.com/5100-6330-1051548-1-1.html.

Gorman, S. P. (2001) It's a Small World After All. PM Boulevard. Retrieved March 3, 2004, from http://www.pmboulevard.com/expert_column/archives/reg/small_world_gorman.pdf.

How many times must a customer see advertising…? (2004, February 11+) MarketingProfs.com. Messages posted to Customer Behavior Know-How Exchange, archived at https://www.marketingprofs.com/ea/qst_question.asp?qstID=291.

Matteucci, N. (2001) Virtual Program Management. Paper presented at Project World, Chicago, IL.

PMI (2000) A Guide to The Project Management Body of Knowledge [electronic version 1.3], (2000) Newtown Square, PA: The Project Management Institute.

Polar Bear Corporate Education Solutions. (2004) Preparation Program ‘PM-Blazer™’ for PMI®'s Project Management Professional (PMP®) Certification Exam. Retrieved March 3, 2004, from www.polarbear.com/outline_storage/SPM800A.pdf.

Rubenstrunk, K. & Pedersen, M. (2002, February) Executing on IT's Promise: Leadership, Culture, and Relationships. Paper presented at the MetaGroup/DCI MetaMorphosis conference, San Diego, CA.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2004, Patricia Davis-Muffett
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – (Prague)

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