Lots of fingers in the communication pie? 3 simple steps to avoid a big clean up

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Business analysts, project managers, executive sponsors, all identify that something needs to be communicated, but lack the skills, knowledge and experience of a communication specialist to be able to turn those requirements into impactful, meaningful communications that deliver the required results.

Failing to bring on board a communications specialist early can lead to a lot of confusion, lack of communication, or mixed and conflicting messages. The result? Stakeholders are disillusioned by the lack of apparent connectedness, making up their own theories to fill any communication vacuum, ultimately undermining the credibility and success of the project or programme.

So what can be done to avoid such common place scenarios? Below are a 3 initial steps (there are more but that’s a topic for another day!)

Bring in a specialist communications resource at the beginning
Identify and swiftly employ a credible communications specialist, at the same time as pulling together the initial project team, so they are involved in the design and build of the business case. They will be able to provide a far more realistic costed communications strategy at that stage, rather than additional funds needing to be found later, which is so often the case. It is very easy to underestimate the amount of communications effort/resource/costs at this crucial stage, without their expertise. Having a communications specialist to pull together the communications strategy, and high level plan, based on the aims and objectives of the project/programme, at this stage will save a lot of pain later on.

Let the communications specialist run the overarching stakeholder management plan
One of the first jobs for a communications specialist is to carry out a stakeholder analysis, talking to all the project managers and other seniors within the programme/project structure, as well as the broader business, and any central communications team. They will need to have an overview across the whole piece, including pulling together any stakeholder information that projects may have developed for their own purposes, into one overarching stakeholder management plan.

This plan will focus on the communication activities required (face to face, events, newsletters, team building, mailings, etc), their frequency and who is responsible for each activity. Once shared and agreed, the communications specialist will hold regular meetings with the stakeholder owners to ensure that this planned activity remains sufficient, is being carried out, to be made aware of any particular issues, and to raise these as appropriate, so corrective action can be carried out at the earliest opportunity. 

The benefit of this is that duplication of effort is removed, key messages can be fed into the stakeholder owners that will be consistent across the piece, and the possibility of communication overload is avoided.  Pro-active management, rather than reactive.

Build a communications governance framework
For a small project, as long as the communications specialist is on the project board and communications is on the agenda, this will probably suffice. 

Where there are multiple projects or a large programme, then a more robust form of communications governance should be put into place at the earliest opportunity. In effect it is the communication equivalent of a project board.

Attendees are those identified as key stakeholders by the communications specialist, whose engagement is needed for the successful delivery of the communication strategy and plan. They could be responsible for delivery or they could be key recipients. Examples might be customer services, complaints, or online services. 

Review and sign off of a terms of reference and agreed list of attendees should be the agenda of the first meeting. Ideally start with the most senior representative of a particular stakeholder group to attend that first session, with a view to sealing their agreement to attend all future meetings, or for their nomination of 2 named people who will have their delegated authority and attend in their stead. This is crucial to ensure that delivery dates can be met, particularly where sign off is required.

Where there are multiple projects who will be delivering communications themselves, rather than the communication specialist, then they will also be core attendees at this meeting. This is to ensure that any new communication requirements identified are made known to the broader group, and any potential impacts reviewed and if necessary resolved before any communication reaches stakeholders. Ultimately the communication specialist must have responsibility for consistency and coherence across all programme and project communications and this forum allows them the opportunity to do this.

Where the communication specialist (and team) are delivering all communications, then this forum is an opportunity to raise awareness of planned communication activities, to raise and monitor any risk, issues, assumptions and dependencies (RAID log), to seek guidance on specialist areas, to help plug gaps in knowledge or provide access to otherwise unobtainable information or individuals, and to track the delivery and impact of communication activities.

This group should also be the final arbiter should there be indecision about correct terminology, to ensure that there is consistency and coherence across the communication piece.

In short, communications should be run like a project or workstream, but by communication specialists who have the creativity, experience, skills and training to produce effective, impactful, communication deliverables. Leave the communication pie making to the experts!

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Posted by Suzanne Easton on 2nd Oct 2014

About the Author
Suzanne is a communications consultant and director of Twin Leaf Consultancy. For the last 10 years Suzanne has provided communication management to predominantly government departments and agencies and Financial Services organisations. Specialising in the delivery of internal and external communications in support of large scale change programmes, Suzanne offers strategic and tactical solutions, from development of the communications strategy and plan, stakeholder management, communications governance, recruiting and managing communication team members, to delivery of all required communication products, both on and off line. In every organisation Suzanne's communication work has been held up as an example of best practice. An OGC Gateway review at one client led to a tool she had developed being taken away to share with other government departments. Suzanne is an accredited practitioner and member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

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