What Might Have Been: Project Communications Part 2

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In this follow-up to Economic Development Communications 101: How to Effectively Communicate Your Project to Your Audiences, we take a closer look at some of the biggest risks to project communications.

Wind turbine against clear blue skyRenewable energy projects that weren’t built. Much needed power plants that never came online. Improved food production stopped in its tracks. Vaccinations that were never administered. All of these are examples of how extremely competent subject matter experts and leaders of technical industries had the carpet yanked out from under them because of poor or absent communication and public engagement.

You can also see it at play on a smaller scale within organizations when new projects or initiatives are derailed because staff, customers, stakeholders or the public were not engaged in the process.

For example, we at RMA were involved in the late stages of a large business engineering and IT project that was designed to transform a public sector organization. By the time we had arrived it had become common for employees to say that the Redesign Project was “being done to them”. They did not feel involved. They felt powerless. Complaints led the unions, politicians, clients and the media to start criticizing the project. It became controversial. Our role was to help manage the wind-down of the project so that it was a “controlled emergency landing” rather than a disastrous crash.

56 percent of dollars spent on projects are at risk due to ineffective communications.

Working in Isolation

There are many organizations in all sectors that have technical experts and project managers working in isolation from the communications specialists. They really do need each other.

In the more pronounced cases, the managers and experts focus exclusively on the technical aspects of getting the job done, ignoring the social and psychological factors affecting a project’s progress and likelihood of success. The communications specialists put together strategies that are not synchronized with the project design and the technical realities.

Or, worse still, the people calling the communications shots are technical experts who do not have expertise in the complex field of communications. They may even think “anyone can do it”. In other words, they are not experts in communications, but they don’t think that matters.

In other words, they are not experts in communications, but they don’t think that matters.

But it does matter. Research indicates that 56 percent of dollars spent on projects are at risk due to ineffective communications. In the Redesign Project mentioned above, the risks became reality. A lot of money was lost.

There also many cases of projects that had their communications programs backfire on them. They focused on traditional PR spin – selling hype, only talking about the benefits or strongly under-representing the risks. They brushed away people’s concerns and perceptions because, to the mind of the expert, they were based on inaccurate information.

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History Repeating

It happens over and over again. A new technology is introduced. Those responsible for it in industry and government are quiet or focused only on providing detailed, technical information without context and meaning.

Critics of the new technology don’t make those mistakes. The put meaning and context to the information. They tell a story about how it will affect people. They build on the ideas and experiences the audience already has.

Are there genes in your food?

For example, there were corporations that lost billions of dollars because of a simple phrase – “franken foods”. The corporations put out a lot of detailed, scientific information to show that the science was solid. But once the anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) people were able to tap into the “science gone amok” theme of the classic novel Frankenstein, it became very easy for people to be convinced that they “do not want genes in their food.”

Technician in front of large engine turbine

Unnecessary communications risks are routinely embraced by organizations. Rather than seeing it as one of biggest determinants of their success, they often treat it as a late-stage add-on to the project. They frequently put technical experts in charge of engaging with the audiences whose support is critical to achieving project objectives. The technical experts then do the communications off the side of their desks, one of many responsibilities.

Next Steps

Are you designing a project now? Are you putting together funding proposals and business cases? Are you about to make scientific or technical breakthrough? It is never too early to look at one of the most important factors that will determine if you succeed – communications.

Find out how we can help you with your project.

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