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Project PR

Projects attract the interest of everyone, whether they are on the project team, stakeholders, or merely bystanders. Larger, more complex projects will attract attention from a larger audience. The audience may widen if the project goes off the rails: witness the BP oil project in the Gulf of Mexico. We project managers tend to focus our attention on the information needs of our sponsors, clients, customers, project team, and other stakeholders and either ignore or discount information needs of others. Larger projects involving industries in areas where public interest has already been aroused may employ communications directors to manage communication to the public. Communication will be extensive in these cases and include communicating with news media. This article is intended for project managers of smaller, less controversial projects which don't have the benefit of a communications director.

The projects we manage deliver new products or services that may be marketed and present the company with new business opportunities, or they may be consumed internally and provide the company with a new solution to a problem or a better solution to an existing problem. In either case, the employees of the company not directly involved in the project as team members, stakeholders, or consumers will still be affected by the outcome of the project so will be interested in project progress and outcomes.

Just a word by way of clarification. I consider any company employee who will be directly affected by the project a stakeholder, not an interested bystander. Projects which deliver solutions that will change processes and procedures will directly affect employees who follow the changed processes or procedures; these employees are stakeholders. Projects which bring new products or services to market will directly affect the employees who have to support the new products or provide the new services and these employees are also stakeholders.

The purpose of public relations is to establish a rapport with the public, in this case the employees of the company performing the project. Public relations will achieve this in two ways: informing the public about your product or service and influencing the public to view that product or service positively. Publicity is the tool most frequently used to accomplish both goals by public relations. The Irish author and dramatist Brendan Behan once said "there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary". Brendan was mainly concerned with attracting the public to read or view his work, not with their opinion of it. Project managers will have an opposite focus, they should be concerned with influencing their public to view the project positively.

Those who direct public relations for a living have a wide variety of sophisticated tools and skills at their disposal to achieve the goals of their campaigns. They assemble media kits to present their information, they use press releases to draw the attention of the news media to their stories, and direct communication when they want to bypass the news media. They can hire "spin doctors" to present the positive side of the news to the public, or to change a negative story into a positive one. They are also increasingly turning to "social media" such as Face Book, Twitter, and blogs to get their message out. Project Managers have fewertools and skills to work with, but that doesn't mean we should ignore this aspect of our communications. We can learn some of the tricks of the trade the pros use and use these on our next project, you don't have to be a professional with years of experience to learn some of their methods. For example, you are starting just about head to head with your professional PR brethren in the area of the social media. Let's examine some of the techniques in common use and then scale them back to fit our projects.

The first trick to learn from the PR professionals is what media your constituents prefer for communication. PR professionals with a large budget and audience will use surveys and polls to make this determination. Your project may be large enough to warrant a survey to determine your audience's preferred media. If it is, a simple e-mail survey introducing your project and asking for the recipient to choose between a list of media will suffice. If it is not, take a look at the direction your company is taking for other communications initiatives. Does your company use a web site on their intranet to get their message to the employees? Do your executives use Town Hall meetings to deliver their message? Do they use e-mail or voice mail "blasts"? Take your queue from the folks already engaged in PR within your company and don't forget to take your communications budget into account when choosing your media.

I mentioned the social media previously. These are tools available to anyone and a blog, Twitter, Face Book page, or You Tube posting may be ideally suited to your purposes. Be sure to check for corporate HR policies here as some companies are more receptive to company information being posted to these public places than others. If your company has no policies forbidding the use of these vehicles and you determine that one or more would be suitable for your project, you should still have the information you wish to post there vetted to ensure that no sensitive information is inadvertently "leaked".

Media choices can be divided into 2 categories for our purposes: "push" type communications where the information is placed in front of the audience (TV commercials are a good example of this type of communication and a good example of the down-side of choosing this approach), and "pull" type communications where the audience must take action to retrieve the information (web sites are a good example of this type of communication). You may decide to use both types to communicate different information at different times. "Push" communications are useful when communicating time sensitive information or information that you want your audience to act on. "Pull" type communications are less intrusive and are useful for communicating information which will satisfy audience curiosity.

I think web sites are an ideal media for your "pull" type communications (though I have yet to have the luxury of using one). If your project involves any web site development and your company supports an employee portal to their web site on their intranet, investigate investing some of your communications budget in a project page. You may find that the idea catches on and costs can be shared across several projects. You will need to consult with your web site developer to design the web pages you will need to display the information you want to communicate to your audience. Some issues to consider are: volume of information, file systems used (e.g. Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, etc.), audience tool suites (do they have Excel, etc. on their desk tops), ease of access, page layout, and update methods.

Social Media are good examples of "pull" type communication. The drawback for these tools is that they are designed to support people rather than companies or projects. You can overcome this restriction by making your Face Book page, Twitter, or blog personal and only posting project information on them.

e-Mail "blasts" are a "push" type of communication. They are ideally suited to special occasions on your project such as the passage of a Gate, or an award. Avoid using e-mails to communicate things like weekly progress reports for your project. Frequently e-mailing your audience will desensitize them to your message and end up turning them off your project. Voice mails are "push" type and ideal for messages that require your audience to take an immediate action. I would not use a voice mail "blast" more than once or twice over the lifecycle of your project.

Wikis are becoming increasingly popular as a one-stop shopping for project communications. Most wikis offer a feature rich document management system that allows you to set access modes to individual documents so that your general audience only has read access to your project information. Most will also support the creation of separate areas so you can restrict the information your general audience has access to. This is handy when you don't want to give these folks the impression you are hiding information from them. Some examples of Wiki software are Confluence, Central Desktop, and Huddle. These are software applications which run on the internet so will require that your audience has access to the internet. Your choices here are extensive and will depend on your audience, the information you want to communicate and your budget.

Some other tools that can be handy and a little less technically challenging are town hall meetings, bulletin boards, and "war" rooms. Town halls are a favourite with the executive crowd as they are face-to-face so they support questions and answers. The down-side to these is that it requires the audience to take a 1/2 hour or hour out of their day at the time the speaker has scheduled the town hall. Again, this is a "push" type of communication. Audio/video conference technology has made it possible to extend town halls to audiences that are not geographically collocated. Bulletin boards are a "pull" type of communication and do not intrude on the audiences' time. The downside of these is that you will need at least one bulletin board in each location your audience works in. "War" rooms are usually used to display progress reports reflecting project performance to plan. The information displayed will be more extensive and detailed than the information you would post to a bulletin board.

Having selected the media you will use to communicate with your audience, you will need to determine the information you wish to communicate and how frequently you want to communicate. I recommend that your first communication be timed to coincide with your project kick off meeting and to include some of the information communicated in the kick off meeting. The communication should explain the reason for the project - what problem will it solve?, what new market niche will it capture? how will it affect the company? Stick to a high level description of the goals and objectives of the project. A one paragraph description of the system, product, or service to be produced and the planned date for delivery of the product or service. The purpose of this communication differs from the purpose of your kick off meeting. The attendees at your kick off meeting will be committed to the project either as team members or stakeholders. The audience for your initial communication won't know about the existence of your project until your communication. Make this communication like a press release. Press releases are for the purpose of generating public interest in a new product or service, usually that the company is trying to sell to the public. This means that the release must speak to the value the product or service will provide to the reader so that the reader is encouraged to investigate further. There is plenty of help available on the internet for writing your press release. There are also businesses that offer tutoring and management of press releases as a service should you decide that you want the general public to know about your project.

Now that you have your audience interested in the project, keep their curiosity satisfied with regular updates on the progress of the project. Keep in mind that their level of interest is not as detailed as the team and the stakeholders so tailor your message to speak at an appropriate level of detail. Try putting yourself in your audiences' shoes: what information would interest you about the project? How often would you like this information? Remember that you aren't simply keeping your audience informed, you are also influencing them to support your project. The information you report should be honest, as accurate as you can make it, as timely as you can make it, and as regular as you can make it. If you publish a weekly news letter, try and make sure it is available once a week on the same day.

Don't shy away from reporting negative results when appropriate, just take steps to ensure that is honest, accurate, at an appropriate level of detail and presented to your audience in the form of a good news story. Put your message in the context of a hurdle the project faces and these are the steps the team is taking to overcome that hurdle. The steps you describe should be a summary of your corrective or preventive actions and the news should have already be shared with the team, sponsor, and stakeholders. Reporting good news should take precedence over reporting bad news. Don't forget to include the outcomes of your project' awards programme in the good news category. Give a brief description of the award, who is receiving it and why they are receiving it. Good news stories are always attractive, especially when they happen at a personal level.

The information you communicate to your general audience may be politically sensitive precisely because your audience is general, which means that everyone up to and including the CEO of your company may read or see it. Take care not to ambush your executive sponsor with any information they would not be comfortable having the CEO see. You may want to have them review your communications before sharing them with your audience to ensure this doesn't happen. Having them contribute in this way will serve 2 purposes: it will avoid embarrassing your sponsor and it should improve the quality of the communication.

You may want to research successful PR campaigns carried out in the past to model your approach after. Choose campaigns that resemble your project as much as possible and then scale down the tools and techniques you use to suit your project. Pay particular attention to the results the PR agency wished to achieve. Aligning the PR campaign you choose with your project and the results you want to achieve will help you select the right campaign to model yours after.

One last piece of advice: capture your PR approach in your Communications Management plan so your sponsor, stakeholders, and team members are informed of your activities and what to expect.

The tips and tricks described in this article implement some of the best practices promoted by the PMI (Project Management Institute). These are taught in most PMP®courses and other PMP® exam preparation training products. If you haven't been certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional) by the PMI and would like to learn more about certification, visit the three O Project Solutions website at: http://threeo.ca/pmpcertifications29.php. three O Project Solutions also offers a downloadable software based training tool that has prepared project managers around the world to pass their certification exams. For more information about this product, AceIt, visit the three O website at: http://threeo.ca/ aceit-features-c1288.php.