Has Your Project Hit Bad Weather? Here’s How to Communicate in Crisis

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If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, you may be dealing with inclement winter weather. That in turn means your local public officials are dealing with how to communicate during a crisis. Project practitioners can learn from them.

Late last month in New York, New Jersey and the New England region in the United States, officials were tasked with preparing citizens for a snowstorm called “historic” before it arrived—but which ultimately spared New York City and neighboring New Jersey. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to defend the decisionto shut down the city’s subway system due to snow for the first time in its 110-year history.        

Similarly, project managers must be aware of the downsides involved with communicating risks on fast-changing projects to stakeholders. If flagged risks don’t materialize, we might find ourselves unable to gain cooperation at a later date.      

Here are three communication rules of thumb, each corresponding to a project stage, to keep in mind when you have imperfect information about a project with constantly changing variables—but still must address stakeholders. 
 

1. Plan ahead: One of the first rules of crisis management is to be fully prepared for a crisis.In New York City last month, we saw de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get out early and explain that the forecast indicated the storm could be the largest in the city’s history. Only 6 inches of snow ended up falling, but the city’s leadership did have a good plan and did effectively prepare the population for the storm.

What can practitioners take away from this? Depending on the type of project you are running, take a few moments to think about how you are going to communicate with your team in case of a problem or uncontrollable event occurring, even if it’s just laying out the steps you need to take on the back of an envelope.

2. Have a clear message:When you are communicating in a variable or crisis situation for your project, you need to have a consistent message, even if you are delivering imperfect or changing information.

Think about how the U.S. National Weather Service issues “advisories,” “warnings” and “watches.” Although some people can be confused by these terms, the service’s definitions of them are distinct.

As a project manager, you may want to put your stakeholder messages into three categories: best case, worst case and most likely case, for example. Choose whichever categories work for your project and clearly define them. Bottom line: Confidently communicate what you know and how it will impact the project and your stakeholders.

3. Review and adapt: Like all good project managers, you likely review best practices at the end of your project. If the project involved communicating in crisis—whether related to weather or a different kind of variable circumstance—it’s especially important to take a few moments at the end to review what worked and what didn’t.

Like the planning and messaging stages noted above, the review doesn’t need to be highly complex. These questions can elicit communications lessons learned:

•   How well did my plan allow me to begin communicating early in the crisis?

•   Was my message easy for all stakeholders to understand?

•   What about my communication delivery methods worked? What didn’t work?

•   Did stakeholders respond to my message in the way that I wanted?

These are just three approaches crisis communications. How have you overcome communication challenges driven by project crises or adverse situations in your organization?

Posted by David Wakeman on: February 04, 2015 07:24 PM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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That's great advice, David. Thank you for sharing it. I think the post-storm discussions about "is it better to be safe than sorry" are enlightening. I think they would have done well to follow your advice about adapting the message as the forecast changed.

I had a post about the storm as well, at http://www.projectmanagement.com/blog/People-and-Projects/11694/. I'd benefit from your thoughts on that.

Have a great weekend!

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