Balancing the scale – Strategic communicators as project managers

Author: Matt Wittern, APR, PMP, Senior Consultant (Email)

Anxiety. Excitement. Dread. Opportunity for impact.

These are just a sampling of responses I’ve collected when asking workshop participants to share the word or feeling that comes to mind when they imagine themselves starting a brand new project.

It’s easy to understand why – a report by Wellingtone, a UK-based Project Management company, revealed that only half of companies say they have a track record of project success[1].

It can hardly be better in the public sector. We can all think of headlines when a high-profile project goes over budget – Boston has the Big Dig, Denver has its current challenge with Denver International Airport, the list goes on.

On the positive side, a new project can be exciting – an opportunity to break away from the everyday. To lead a team brought together for a specific purpose and look forward to the pride you will take in a job well done.

The communicator’s advantage in project management

As I recently told a group of public information officers during a webinar presentation, it’s my experience that communicators have a leg up on at least half of what it takes to be a good project manager. The reason for this is there is a balance of art and science when looking at the ideal project manager’s skillsets:

On the art side, we are already leaders when it comes to helping our organizations head in the right direction. We are always thinking about stakeholders – what they are thinking and how we can work better with them. We’re also experts at negotiating, building relationships with people that results in a give and take that benefits both parties. And finally, we’re all skilled at communicating, which is embedded in every task listed above.

Where some communicators can use help in project management is on the science side. We can get in trouble when it comes to scope because at some level we are all people pleasers, and it can be difficult to say no to “just one more thing.” Also, I find we are prone to not properly accounting for risk, in that many of us have the tendency to worry about the worst happening when the actual chances of that are often miniscule. The last two – scheduling and budgeting are too often managed in our heads, which can make it difficult to share details with others and introduces opportunities for errors.


Tips, tools, and techniques for balancing the scale


In simple terms, scope is the extent of a given activity – in this case, your project. Identifying the scope helps everyone involved understand what the project is meant to accomplish. If you drew a circle, it would encompass everything you are charged with doing. Everything else is outside the scope, outside the circle.

Nobody knows it better than communications professionals that no matter the organization, all resources are finite. On one end of the spectrum, developing a clear scope helps determine the minimum level of resources that will be necessary to accomplish the objectives. On the other end, a clearly-defined scope helps keep the project focused and better able to brush off the all-too-frequent future requests to broaden the project, or to add “gold plating” that isn’t necessary to achieve the intended goals.

As consultants, everything we do in support of or on behalf of clients are projects. When starting one, we always host a kickoff meeting that includes all the key decision-makers within the organization. A guided discussion is helpful for teasing out a host of elements that inform our tailored communications strategy. Among the questions we ask to help set the scope include:

  • What challenge or opportunity do we seek to address?
  • How will we know we have been successful?
  • What are the social or political factors at play that may have a bearing on this project?
  • Describe the future state where this project has successfully met your needs.

Often, by sharing our screen or projecting it on the wall, we’re able to work together to emerge from the kickoff meeting with agreement on a scope statement to guide our work. More specific than a mission statement, a scope statement can be seen as the circle referenced above and becomes the focus of the project.

For communicators within organizations, securing group agreement on the project scope delivers benefits including:

  • A common understanding and buy-in among your peers and superiors of what your project is meant to accomplish
  • Providing a preview of the resources you will need to secure the shared future vision
  • Clear direction to help you confidently move forward into the planning stages
  • A bit of an insurance policy against pressure you may receive in the future to add elements to your scope – requests that are rarely accompanied by offers for additional resources


It’s so common it’s become cliché – a consultant asking a potential client “what keeps you up at night?” At its core, this question is rooted in risk, which for our purposes can be defined as the chance of running into a hazard or incurring a loss.

The good news is that, for the most part, risk can be managed. The science of risk management has kept insurance companies functioning for millennia, but communicators don’t need complicated actuarial tables. For communicators, we can use a risk register, which is a straightforward document that enables us to list potential risks, rate the likelihood of it taking place, the impact on the project if it were to take place, and steps we can take to avoid or mitigate the risk.

Using a risk register includes the following components:

  • Identification: Gather your team to brainstorm all the risks you can think of to your project, and don’t forget to talk with your other project stakeholders outside your team to ensure full coverage
  • Description: Here’s where you describe the risk in sufficient detail without getting too granular – include enough information that it will be clear to someone who might read this from outside your team
  • Impact: Often shown using a Likert scale (measures strength/intensity on a continuum), impact describes how badly the risk could compromise your project
  • Priority: Also often on a Likert scale, priority can be seen as the perceived chance that a risk will take place – a risk with a high impact score and high priority score deserves your close attention, while a risk with a lower combined score is something you might not need to spend a lot of resources on
  • Response: This is a summary of how you will mitigate or avoid the risk – this helps you think ahead so if that crisis strikes, you’ll have some tools in place to address it immediately
  • Ownership: Assign each risk an owner – whether an individual on your internal team, or among your internal stakeholder groups. It is this individual’s responsibility to monitor this risk and serve as early warning.
  • Notes: A place to collect information that doesn’t fit nicely in any other area of the specific risk’s row.

Developing and maintaining a risk register will help you as a project manager sleep better at night, content in the knowledge that you have a thorough accounting of risks that can negatively impact your project. Sharing this document with your supervisors will give them confidence that you have this key element of the project well in-hand.


As communicators, we understand the value of graphics to share information in a way that is more appealing to the reader than regular text. An indispensable tool in project management is a schedule, and there are few better ways to display a schedule than use of a Gantt chart, a tool invented by Henry Gantt, a mechanical engineer in the early 20th century.

Gantt charts display your project schedule horizontally along a timeline that show start and end dates of specific activities, whether an activity is dependent on successfully completing a previous task entry, who is responsible for specific tasks, critical milestones and deadlines, etc.

As a communication tool, a Gantt chart isn’t just great for giving transparency to the process. It helps your teammates predict when they will be asked to perform a specific task, which helps them manage workload. It increases accountability, with everyone understanding what (and when) something will be expected of them. They are also useful as a tool to lead successful project meetings and can be living documents that help you track the team’s progress.

Gantt charts typically:

  • Are viewed horizontally, with units of time moving from left to right. Depending on your project, time units can be represented as small as minute-by-minute if you are building a video script, show activities by single day, or display a high-level schedule of activities taking place over a period of months or years
  • Break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks that must be accomplished along the way
  • Include a place to list the individual or individuals responsible for each sub-task
  • Clearly show key project milestones and deadlines
  • Reveal the sequence of activities that must be completed before the next activity can begin, frequently known as the “critical path.”

Until recently, Gantt charts were created using complex (and expensive) project management software, or built from scratch using tools like Microsoft Project or Excel. Fortunately for my fellow communicators who might be intimidated by those programs, the internet has enabled a wide variety of startups that deliver web-based Gantt charts that are simple enough to have a short learning curve, but effective and attractive enough to make your project look very professional. As of this writing, a handful of providers included:



A mentor of mine occasionally quips that she should never be permitted to “do math in public,” and I’m confident that sentiment is shared by communication colleagues; it certainly is for me. For many of us, an appeal of our chosen profession is the low expectation of our abilities in mathematics, but that runs into trouble when we mix communications and project management.

Budgeting is a core skillset for effective project managers, but it doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it seems initially. It’s also a key tool to make the case for adequate funding – also known as the life blood of most projects – something we communicators have too often functioned without. So, what are the key elements of a project budget? Not all of these are likely to apply, but consider:

  • Direct and indirect costs: Direct costs are those that are solely incurred because of your project, and traceable to a specific product or service. Less common on communications projects are indirect costs that are incurred as part of the larger business function, like rent, utilities, overhead and salaries, etc.
  • Labor: Some clients we’ve worked with – even some in the public sector – track time spent by in-house employees toward specific projects.
  • Materials: Your project may be asked to account for materials you will need to accomplish the project, even down to things like paper for the copier. Other materials may be tied to specific strategies or tactics you plan to employ, such as pop-up tents, banners, and giveaways when you participate in events such as a farmer’s market or arts festival.
  • Travel: Airfare, lodging, rental car, checked luggage fee, mileage reimbursement on your personal vehicle, etc.
  • Equipment: What will you have to purchase to help ensure your project is a success – maybe it is a projector to help you communicate during presentations to your local Kiwanis Club, or a phone and laptop to outfit the new team member you’ll hire as part of your project.
  • Space: Again, rare among our clients in the private sector, but consider the cost to rent the space to host your media event or town hall.
  • Contingency: Always try to include a little extra to account for the unexpected or unplanned event. A contingency fund can be one way you manage risks identified in your risk register.

Like other aspects of project management, budgeting is a task that should not be attempted alone – draw upon resources you have available to you, including:

  • What you spent on past similar projects
  • What others in your professional circle have spent on past similar projects
  • High-level estimates from printers and mail house vendors

In closing

When viewed through this lens, I hope it is clear just how well positioned most strategic communications professionals are to improve their project management skills and balance the scale of arts and science. Technology is always improving to help us with these skills, and tools developed on prior projects can easily be repurposed as templates to make your next one even more successful than the last.