We have all heard the horror stories but there are ways of ensuring you get the right message about your project across to the right audience.
Andrew Hewitt reports.
The project director goes to the monthly client meeting armed with financials and schedules to find the only thing the client wants to discuss is the aggravation he's receiving from local councillors and the MP. Suitably roasted he leaves to the warning: 'if you don't sort it out, you can kiss goodbye to the next contract'.
Or the site engineer, armed with pen and scrap of paper, agrees to meet a couple of local residents at the village hall to resolve issues over access and noise, and walks into a hall crammed with well over 100 residents eagerly awaiting a multi-media presentation and free-for- all question time.
Thinking about communications can save time and money on capital projects, and in some cases personal aggravation.
Unfortunately, there is no A to Z, step-by-step guide. What you say, to whom, its timing and delivery, depends on many factors such as the type of project, size, duration, impact and location.
But there are some golden rules that can help with planning communications:
Know your audience Who has an interest in this project?
Who is likely to be impacted?
What is the best way to keep in touch with them?
Listen to and understand your audience What concerns them?
There is nothing worse than being on the back foot. Working under pressure often compounds problems.
Tailor your message
The interests of a local resident and the constituency MP are usually - but not always - going to be different. Make sure what you say matters to them.
Keep it clear and simple It is easy to lapse into jargon. Is it PPP or PFI? Most people do not care: nor do they need to.
Be realistic Promise nothing that cannot be delivered. Doing so may avoid an immediate problem, but you can guarantee it will become a hostage to fortune.
Keep people informed
If you start talking to people do not suddenly stop. A sustained dialogue helps to build understanding.
Avoid surprises If the project is likely to cause some traffic disruption or noise, say so at the outset. Do not try to disguise the inevitable.
Look for opportunities
Sometimes you can be so concerned with the logistics of managing a project, that a cracking photograph for the local paper of a key piece of equipment being craned into place does not get a second thought.
Be positive and sell your achievements
Do not lose sight of why the project is going ahead in the first place. Investing money in manpower and materials is usually with long-term benefits in mind.
Putting these golden rules into practice is, of course, easier said than done. Taking time out to prepare a structured communications plan at the outset of a project increases the likelihood of successful delivery.
For most projects the process of creating a structured communications plan should not be onerous. A typical plan will cover:
lntroduction - A brief summary of the project.
Objectives: What are you trying to achieve with your communications?
Key messages: What are the main benefits the project will bring and what facts do you have to back them up?
Key audiences: Who are the people you need to reach?
What actions/initiatives are you going to take to reach your respective audiences?
Summary timelines: Align your communication actions/ initiatives against the project timelines.
Budgets: Communications need not be expensive, but you will need to identify some funding.
Roles and responsibilities: Who will be responsible for what? And, how are you going to manage and monitor your ongoing communications?
Good, well-planned communications cannot resolve an engineering problem, but they can certainly ease the fall out. And, for the vast majority of projects which are delivered on time and to budget, they can ensure the PR benefits are maximised.
Andrew Hewitt is communications director of the Blake Project Ltd, which specialises in working with utilities, construction companies and public authorities to improve communications on capital investment programmes and projects. He can be contacted on (01865) 734321 or at andrew. hewitt@blakeproject. com