Being a communication specialist can help you as a project manager

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Every project has goals and to achieve these goals there are a range of factors that must be taken into consideration. Some of the important elements are teamwork and communication; a project isn’t a one-man show, it’s about working with the team to deliver the project. Whilst working on Northern Spire for the city of Sunderland keeping collaboration in mind and communicating effectively was vital to aid success.

As project managers, we have to be able to explain the goals, benefits and objectives of the project to our team. We must use our skills as communication specialists to get our message across to ensure the details are articulated clearly and consistently.

We had very open lines of communication with the community and the press.  And together we increased trust so when we had potential negative news, they were more inclined to collaborate and did not feel the need to go looking for an alternative explanation.

It’s important to recognise that the communications strategy – and key messaging – must be able to clearly articulate how the project will ultimately deliver the benefits and reach its intended goal. Projects should make full use of all available channels of communication and we made sure we did that for Northern Spire. Using a digital collaboration tool improved our internal communications. They were managed by a communications protocol that defined the status and authority of different types of communication, these communications were hosted on a cloud-based system that ensured all parties had a single version of the latest state of any discussion thread.

We had a very simple approach to internal and partner communications – every time updates were issued to the community and the media, copies of materials were circulated first to the internal team by email to ensure people understood the key messages and wider context of what was being communicated externally. We also took a proactive approach to social media and the website to ensure we were communicating the same key message to all stakeholders irrespective of their method of ‘listening’.

Collaboration was also considered in contracts, for example the Construction Contract was the NEC3 ECC Option A and included the standard collaboration clauses. The change management processes set out a clear process for assessing the allocation of risk and cost. Commercially there was no deviation from the contract or the provisions of the contract. However, the Project Team created the environment for successful collaboration through expeditious, open and honest conversation around commercial issues.

The project manager may have been appointed and paid for by the client but is contractually obliged to be independent. By openly sharing the reasoning in decision making with all parties and being prepared to change decisions if these were shown to be flawed, the project team had confidence that the right commercial conclusions would be reached and therefore decisions could focus on the needs of the project not individual commercial interests.

A common mistake in project management is to be blinded by the project’s deliverables as the ultimate goal and overlooking cooperative measures that need to be worked around. Keeping collaborative efforts in mind and being a communications specialist, can aid in the project reaching its goal, and that is what everyone wants.

Duncan Ross-Russell will be one of the panellists at the APM Project Management Conference London on 2 May 2019.


This blog was written by Duncan Ross-Russell and co-author Chris Taylor.

Duncan was the client’s Project Manager for the Northern Spire, responsible for ensuring the project delivered the benefits required by the Sunderland City Council. Duncan was responsible for the day to day running of the project through leading the project team in close collaboration and effective contract management.

Duncan has over 25 years of Project management experience with specific experience in delivering strategic, high priority projects to tight timelines, undertaking the contract and commercial management to ensure these tools aid successful delivery.

Duncan is central to Atkins and Faithful+Gould’s drive to ensure that all projects succeed through leading the businesses’ global project management community. Duncan joined Faithful & Gould having served 16 years in the Royal Engineers delivering construction projects across the globe. 

Duncan is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management and a Chartered Project Professional.

Chris Taylor

Posted by Chris Taylor on 24th Apr 2019

About the Author

Chris Taylor was the Communications Manager for Northern Spire, responsible for the community and stakeholder engagement, PR and managing the reputation of the project through its three and a half year journey to opening on behalf of Sunderland City Council. This involved designing and delivering high profile media events, engaging with local businesses and residents, overseeing a major schools engagement programme and co-ordinating client and contractor activity to maximise support for the project, culminating in 20,000 people attending a bridge open day just prior to opening. Chris specialises in infrastructure communications work and is one of around 300 Chartered Public Relations Practitioner currently working in the UK.

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