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How Project Managers Should Handle the Public

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How Project Managers Should Handle the Public

In her weekly e-Newsletter, Elizabeth Harrin, the voice of the blog, “A Girl’s Guide to Project Management,” tackles the important topic of communications by project managers.
Sure, it’s a topic that has been covered many times before. Harrin, though, in her newsletter focuses on how project managers should communicate with the public. She shares important lessons.
While reading the newsletter, a construction project at my children’s school came to mind. During public meetings the lead architect, the de facto project manager for the design phase, seemed ill prepared and allowed his staff to be dismissive of legitimate public concerns.


Case in point was the landscape architect who bragged a number of new trees would be planted on the grounds. When asked how many, he replied, “We haven’t counted yet.” That was hardly reassuring in terms of basic budgeting and planning transparency.
As Harrin points out, you have to stay on message and be consistent. The school’s architect, who fortunately has left for other employment, allowed his staff to present info it knew to be incomplete. In her newsletter, Harrin quotes Neasa Kane-Fine, Director at RPS Communications, who was speaking at a PMI event in Ireland.
“You can’t control what happens to what you say,” Kane-Fine said, according to Harrin. “Keep on message all of the time. Because of social media it’s far more relevant than ever before.”
Harrin then adds this excellent observation. “Your message goes to your audience, who then share it with their audience and at that point you can’t predict how it will get filtered, changed or interpreted.”
The KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple Stupid) also applies as Harrin points out. Be flexible and responsive and listen “meaningfully.” Avoid jargon when you are talking to people who are not close to the project. “People may nod but they don’t understand and feel alienated,” said Kane-Fine. You want to make them feel like you are good at explaining issues and that they can come to you when there is a problem, Harrin added.
Another excellent observation she makes is going to where the public is. Don’t expect the public to come to you. If your project has a requirement to communicate to the public then there are a number of ways you can do it. She suggested the following.

  • Meetings: one to one or small groups
  • Open days: hold them at different times to catch the widest groups, like Saturdays, evenings and during working hours as well.
  • Outreach: this is having a stand at a supermarket or shopping centre to be able to catch people who would not attend an open day
  • Let them contact you: set up phone lines, a website and email address so that members of the public can get in touch at a time that is convenient for them
  • Public meetings: Neasa said that community groups don’t hold public meetings to tell you that the project is fantastic and to ask when you are opening. It’s better to agree to meet with the committee or a small group, a maximum of 12 people, than attend a public meeting if you can.

Call that last piece of advice the weakest of the bunch. Sometimes you are going to need to meet with the public to allow people to vent. As experienced politicians will tell you (and what is project management but good politics?), people feel good when they can vent their opinions. They also become suspicious when they can’t talk to the people in charge.
Don’t avoid the public. Instead, communicate with them and your project, even if controversial, could end up turning detractors into supporters.

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