Practitioners spend many hours managing projects in the form of programmes and campaigns. Let’s look at what project management is, from the context of strategic communications and PR, and some best practices.

One of our key skill sets in communications and PR is project management. It’s definitely not one of the first things that come to mind when joining the industry, given its focus on driving reputation and credibility.

However, to progress in this field, project management is a critical skill set to cultivate and get better in over a career.

What is project management?

According to the Project Management Institute, project management is the use of specific knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to deliver something of value to people.

There are typically six stages of a typical project – starting/conception, planning, execution/application, monitoring and adjustment, measurement and conclusion.

When a project plan is executed well, it typically means that the six stages were done well, and an organisation’s decision-making process through several core areas – customers, competition, capabilities/resources, budgets, channels and coordination – were managed well.

How is the generic project management process different from what we practice in strategic communications and PR?

The role, practice and value of strategic communications/PR to an organisation is not new. This is despite the constantly changing definition of what constitutes strategic communications.

As we build new means of connecting with audiences, and segment audiences for different purposes, strategic communications will add more components to its repertoire.

strtgcommsgrp - Project management

At its heart, it is about creating and executing against a master plan, by coordinating the various channels of communications an organisation has; to support its outreach to decision makers and stakeholders and influence, promote or defend against outcomes.

It’s all about where we put our focus on.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Strategic communications covers far more ground than just branding or thought leadership. It crosses many fields such as public relations, marketing and policy. Investing and developing strategic communications capability within your organisation can help build, protect and enhance the value of your brand and reputation.

With SC and PR, the focus of project management should be on determining goals, setting appropriate strategy and preparing realistic outcomes.

Goals vs. outcomes vs. objectives

Goals and objectives are two commonly used terms when it comes to building strategies and plans for the organisation.

Many teams tend to use them interchangeably as well, without recognising that they mean different things.

Additionally, an outcome – from a business or marketing perspective – is ultimately about achieving a desired change. A change is not necessarily a goal.

In fact, these two terms should be used differently. An achievement starts with a goal and ends with an outcome. A goal is typically a beginning step in the plan, and the outcome a conclusion.

From a SC and PR perspective, we would define the terms as follows:

How do you do strategy?

It is critical when creating strategy for SC/PR that we do so with differentiation in mind.

The goal is to deliver high-value, in-demand solutions to your customers. Delivery of superior value means you become the preferred solutions provider for a specialty area.

To do so, you must figure out how to deliver such overwhelming and superior value that your customers will buy-into the value you deliver and choose not to bargain on price.

With the business strategy and plan in place, there are a few key steps to determine to support with SC/PR:

What is a realistic outcome?

Efficacy is different from efficiency.

It is important for strategic communications practitioners to differentiate between both outcomes in our planning for programmes and campaigns.

Doing something quickly or cheaply is a waste of resources when it is impact that one is looking for.

When we speak about the efficacy of a programme or a campaign, we are looking at the value, impact or benefit produced that influences an action or behaviour we want the customer to take.

In contrast, when we talk about efficiency of a campaign, we refer to how well we can accomplish our goals and objectives with the least use or wastage of resources. These resources can refer to budget, time, and manpower.

Setting clear and realistic goals and outcomes is a critical step for any strategic communications programme or campaign. Regardless of whether the plan is built ground-up or reverse engineered, the key step is to set the outcomes and how to measure these outcomes in relation to business goals.

Ask, build, or receive clear and complete answers to the following questions.

  1. What will successful execution of this programme look like?
  2. Which business goals and communication objectives will it achieve or impact?
  3. If there is no clear link to the goal, can I measure its impact through a proxy?
  4. What would this proxy logically look like?
  5. How does it connect to the goal through numbers, actions, or behaviours?

It bears saying that these measurements should be both qualitative and quantitative and map to the programme and campaign objectives.

Being realistic with the outcomes will make measuring the success of the programme/campaign easier.

How do you build in triggers for review and changing of plan or execution?

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” is a quote attributed to German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.

As with battle, so it can be with business. No SC/PR master plan survives the environment once it is launched. To think so, is to be naïve. It’s is far better to know this fact, and prepare for it during the conception and planning stages of the project.

If there is good and proper planning, a discussion around expectations and ownership should be done with stakeholders. For example, this can be with functional leads/units/teams, or with channel distributors and resellers, or even within the SC/PR structure between members targeting different audiences.

With ownership obtained, a series of steps, achievements and measurements can be decided upon – typically within a +/- range or percentage – that serves as a trigger. When activated, the trigger can be to call for a stakeholder meeting, a review of actions or a decision to continue or stop.

Allocate sufficient resources and add a buffer.

Within the organisation, it is SC/PR’s responsibility to target and remove the concept of communications, public relations, or marketing as purely service functions or cost centres. Ensure that leadership/management evaluates the functions as a strategic choice with shared responsibility for growth.

From a project management perspective, it is good to adopt these steps in support of sufficient allocation of resources:

  1. All campaigns and activities can be placed against a calendar to help identify where resources can be optimised for efficiency
  2. Think in terms of campaign or project teams, where teams have a consolidated capacity of budget, time and talent
  3. Structure the plan and measurements in a format that is easy to understand and present to non-communications teams
  4. Assume there will be delays, and build in contingencies to manage them
  5. Make the execution component dynamic, and able to take input during operations and therefore able to change according to the situation, without sacrificing goals or outcomes
strtgcommsgrp - resources, time, budget, talent

Resources can be budget, time, and talent with specific skill sets/capabilities. If working with external parties – such as consultants and contractors – view their contributions as another resource.

Take a mental breath: What is focus, and how does paying attention to your own focus help you focus on the SC/PR programme better?

Focus and cognition are closely linked when it comes to project management, and execution of programmes and campaigns.

Cognition is the sum of all the processes required and involved in thinking, learning, applying of information, remembering and execution.

Cognitive focus is the ability – essentially a combination of skills – to direct and train our attention to a specific area/topic/idea and build it over a period of time. Factors that reduce our cognitive focus include the nature of the information being accessed, content familiarity, and often times the mood we approach the task with.

In an organisation, the ability to retain/remain focused on a task – in this case, the SC/PR programme – is important in achieving a successful outcome. Focus and cognitive skills can help with analysing and interpreting data, move goals forward, and support problem solving.

Healthline shares some tips to help focus and reduce distractions:

With the right project plan in place, what are some best practices to put in place?  

strtgcommsgrp - Project management
  1. Be clear, specific and pragmatic: Be SMART about what you want to achieve, focus on the outcomes you want, and be especially clear about the metrics supporting the outcome/s
  2. Secure co-ownership of the outcomes with stakeholders/client: Identify what are the key outcomes that will benefit either the biggest number of teams or will map to the most relevant business goal. Design programmes and campaigns showing the alignment and mapping. Commitment to metrics and proxies should be clear, transparent and demonstrate both efficiency and effectiveness in the use of resources.
  3. Give good briefs to your teams incl. external support: Providing good briefs and receiving feedback is critical to the success of a programme. If the team – including external partners – do not know which direction to pull in, expect uncertainty, inefficiencies, and the need to keep adjusting the plan.
  4. Build in milestones or points to review execution: Start from the beginning. Determine what milestones/triggers must happen for a review to take place during the campaign. Evaluate the environment and build in buffers – time, budget, talent – if timelines have to shift.  
  5. Many things are distractions: Find the one outcome that delivers the most impact to the business goal. Ensure that as much priority is given to achieve this outcome. Every other outcome/want/request is a distraction. Deal with them appropriately and with tact, especially if it is a compromise given to secure co-ownership.  
  6. Provide clear and succinct reports to stakeholders/clients regularly: Ensure co-owners are aware of the outcomes, and the schedule that reports are provided. Remind that that ad hoc reports and requests are a cost to the programme team in terms of time and focus. Adhere strictly to the pre-agreed reporting schedule, and do not miss any, even if the report is negative, as it damages trust. 

Running a SC/PR project can be one of the most exciting and exhilarating experiences ever, given the team’s ability to guide and influence outcomes. When done well, the outcomes and results delivered can position and grow the value of the strategic communications and PR teams to the organisation.

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