By Gloria Lombardi
What’s interesting in Communicating Projects is how the author condenses sound and robust research into simple, easy-to-digest tips for achieving behavioural change. When you look at the simplicity of its structure, it is hard to believe that this book is drawn upon rigorous theory. At the end of reading it, you should feel a confident communicator ready to get your hands on how to communicate a significant business project, aware of what to do to deliver results.
Developing the strategy
“Failing to plan is planning to fail – or so the saying goes.” At first this sounds obvious. But, Pilkington warns us that this stage is so often taken for granted – and therefore overlooked, and that in the majority of the cases it causes the whole project communication to fade. So, where to start? One of the first lessons that she teaches us is that strategic planning is a step-by-step process with each stage informing the next one. “Only when this is complete should the actual communication activities be designed.” The result of this activity will be set out in the communication strategy document.
Understanding the situation
Strategic planning starts with carrying out research. Good communicators make sure they really understand the situation before deciding what to do. It is key to interpret the intended meaning of the project objectives and milestone, the external and internal nature of the change, the existing level of stakeholders’ awareness, the organisational culture, risks and issues, and lessons learnt from previous projects.
Researching might take time and other resources. However, it will save costs in the long term. This is because research at the input stage prevents the project embarking on communication activity that is unlikely to deliver the required outcomes.
As Pilkington puts it, “the question should not be whether the project can afford the time and money to carry out research, but whether it can afford not to.”
The communications strategy should explain who the project will engage with. This is an important piece of work that forms part of the analysis stage and needs to be done early on in the strategic planning process. “An understanding of stakeholder perspectives will feed into the communication objectives and messaging.”
Included in this stage is the need to understand the level of employee engagement. I like the emphasis Pilkington places on giving employees a voice. If they feel very well informed, have a say in what happens and are listened to, then they are more likely to feel committed to the project. That way, not only can engagement levels be maintained or increased but the project has more chance of realising its benefits. If trust is achieved, employees can make effective use of their voices and become major contributors of the project communications.
Aims and objectives
They are different from each other. The aim of the communication strategy is overarching and more general than an objective. Yet, it has to be clear and easy to understand (e.g. ‘Obtain stakeholder support for the project’). Objectives must support the overall goal by giving it focus and direction, enabling activities to be measured effectively, ensuring the best use of resources, encouraging leadership to support the communications approach, and helping the most appropriate tactics to be chosen.
Pilkington suggests that the well-known principle of SMART is still highly important when writing a communication objective. Objectives have to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed. (e.g. ‘Ensure that all stakeholders involved in the design are clear about the process for feed-back by the end of the month’).
Once the objectives have been clearly identified, the next step is to decide the best approach in order to achieve them. Key here is to match the strategy to the objectives that have been set and to remember that different objectives require different strategic approaches.
“For example, if the objective is to change behaviour, then the strategic approach would need to be much more about involving people in the project then simply telling them about the change. In a situation like this where it is clear that the strategic approach should be a programme of two-way communication, then the activity needs to be designed accordingly. Workshops and team discussions where feedback is gathered and taken on board are examples of two-way communication activities. However, a simple one-way communication strategy might be all that is needed if the requirement is to raise awareness or let people know about something straightforward and noncontroversial. Then, an intranet story, poster or email may be appropriate.”
Having an agreed set of messages is necessary to ensure that consistency is maintained along the whole project communication. They should be reinforced throughout all the activity and any opportunity should be taken to remind stakeholders of them. Messages should be simple and straightforward both in language and tone. “It should be possible for anyone on the project to understand and communicate them.” While bullet points may be an easy solution for the project communicator, Pilkington suggests that incorporating the messages into a narrative or story rather than a list of points, in some cases can work better. A whole chapter, Creating Great Content, gives full details and useful advice on the subject.
Among the factors to consider when developing messages are: the objectives that they are designed to help deliver; the type of message (Is it to raise awareness or to persuade someone to change behaviour?); the current view of the stakeholders who will be targeted with the message; and the need of the stakeholders (What do they need to know?).
Develop a plan and tactics
The strategic approach guides which communications channels and tactics will be best to use. Pilkington does stress how important it is to communicate a message in the most appropriate way. The method of communication – often called ‘channel’ – really becomes part of the message and needs to be appropriate for the content. Every channel has their advantages and disadvantages. It is a question of deciding which is the best for the message intended to be communicated, always remembering that it should match the strategy as it has been set.
While one-way communication (e.g. news, team briefings, podcasts, videos, etc.) aim to provide information to gain understanding, two-way communication (e.g. problem solving workshops, social media, blogs with taken action, wikis, etc.) empower people to be involved with the project and develop the situation.
When it comes to the plan, the author makes the case for simplicity. “The sign of a good plan is when it can be picked up by anyone and provide the information that is needed in order to deliver the outcomes required.” Plan need to be simple enough to be updated to reflect changes that may occur along the initiative. The strangest thing about planning is that despite it being highly important, the plan itself is there to serve a purpose and is not an end in itself. Yet, “it is when the planning process becomes more important than the delivery that plans fail to be useful.”
Getting skilled at evaluating is very important. The author points out that research is vital not only as an input to strategic communication planning but also throughout the implementation of the strategy to check if it is working. “If it isn’t then the approach can be adjusted and different tactics designed.” As the communication strategy is implemented, research will help to identify the activities that are less effective or ineffective and these can be stopped and resources diverted into something more effective.
There are several types of research methodology that can be used including surveys, focus groups, interviews, the ‘water cooler’, network analysis, online communities, and content analyses. However, each has its strengths and limitations and it is important to select the approach that is most appropriate to the situation.
The answer to the question ‘What to measure’ goes back to the objectives that were set in the communication strategy. “These are what need to be measured.” Evaluation should address both outputs – what has been done – and outcomes – what has been achieved. So for example, “an output measure might be how many newsletters were issued or how many visits there have been to a web page. Measuring outcomes involves looking at whether stakeholders thought or did something differently as a result.”
For project communicators the journey can look like a real challenge. However, through Pilkington’s work communicating projects becomes an experiential journey in which communication finds its proper role within the overall context of the project.
If you apply the theories described in the manual it will give you much practical knowledge and advice complemented by relevant studies to understand the basics of communicating a project effectively. If there is one thing I miss it’s that the book fails to explore the application of project communication to enterprise social networks to the depth I would have wanted.
Nevertheless, throughout the book there are also a number of vignettes where concepts and examples are provided in more depth. By investing in this guide you will in all likelihood feel more empowered and able to support your organisation along the entire project.