Pondering public relations as project management

Update: Embedding public relations with clarity, candour and no-pants humour has now published in the Journal of Professional Communication, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2013).

Later in November 2013, my submission for The Journal of Professional Communication (JPC) publishes, which is an “ideas” review of Scott Berkun’s fifth book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.

Scott Berkun describes his 21 months of working at Automattic as “participatory journalism.” My JPC take is that in many ways it is a new-form style of corporate media, a transparent and honest, embedded insider’s take or “creation” regarding the organization narrative—hence how I qualify it as a public relations initiative, even if this wasn’t the intention or couched in those terms by the author.

Berkun’s narrative includes an appreciation for Automattic’s unique culture and values based on “passion and joy” for work, which stems from the company’s still-young, highly principled founder, Matt Mullenweg, plus ideas about being a data-influenced culture, rather than a data-driven one, and how a collaborative culture does have some negative side effects, such as a lack of creative friction and some apprehension to speak truth to power. In other words, being risk averse at the expense of persuading towards even bigger, innovative ideas.

In comparing Automattic to the Melbourne Mandate, including its Professional Development Wheel that Catherine Arrow developed for the Global Alliance, I was struck by how this company could be a best practices case study.

This post on PR Conversations focuses on a couple of relevant and interesting “project management” ideas that I believe correlate to public relations and communication management, as well as some PM terms new to me.

Length, not value, precluded me from including them in the JPC article.

Building focus and trust into the communication process

One of the first ideas I warmed to is the concept of building the end communication into the front part of any given project, in order to bring simplicity and clarity, i.e., focus, into the equation. I’ve become increasingly less fond of the term “messaging” that gets thrown around regarding corporate communication, let alone the stereotype of public relations being mainly about spin.

I don’t know of any company that begins to write its news releases or website copy so early in the game before something is launched (or “shipped”)—do you?

I’ve extracted much of this passage about Workflow at Automattic, which demonstrates how close to the conceptualization stage is the first draft of the end communication (i.e., step #2). Italics are mine:

  1. Pick a problem. A basic problem or idea is chosen, i.e., “It’s too hard to print blog posts” or “Let users share from WordPress to Facebook.” …After an idea is chosen, discussion begins on how it should work.
  2. Write a launch announcement and a support page. Most features are announced to the world after they go live on WordPress.com. But long before launch, a draft launch announcement is written. How can you write an announcement for something that doesn’t exist? The point is that if you can’t imagine a compelling simple explanation for customers, then you don’t really understand why the feature is worth building. Writing the announcement first is a forcing function. You’re forced to question if your idea is more exciting for you as the maker than it will be for your customer. If it is, rethink the idea or pick a different one.
  3. Consider what data will tell you it works. …The plan for a new feature must consider how its positive or negative impact on customers can be measured. For example, if the goal is to improve the number of comments bloggers get from readers, we’d track how many comments visitors write each day before and after the change.
  4. Get to work. Designers design. Programmers program. Periodically someone checks the launch announcement to remind everyone of the goal. As more is learned about what’s possible, the announcement becomes more precise. Sometimes the feature pivots into something different and better.
  5. Launch. When the goal of the work has been met, the feature launches. It’s often smaller in scope than the initial idea, but that’s seen as a good thing. The code goes live, and there is much rejoicing.
  6. Learn. Data is captured instantly and discussed…by the folks who did the work. Bugs are found and fixed. For larger features, several rounds of revision are made to the design.
  7. Repeat.

In the words of Scott Berkun,

The fundamental mistake companies that talk about innovation make is keeping barriers to entry high. They make it hard to even try out ideas, blind to how much experimentation you need to sort the good ideas from the bad.”

The end announcement and web copy can now focus on honest and true good ideas, with clarity and simplicity, not messaging or spin.

On building trust for projects

Scott Berkun was recruited by the founder to be a team leader when Automattic moved from a flat hierarchy to 10 teams of five people. He was the only “outsider” recruited for this role, meaning he was at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the other nine Automattic-experienced team leads. But the advantage he had over the others was his past experience working in teams (for Microsoft) as well as his learned and intuitive understanding of how to build trust, including through regular communication processes.

If you think one of the primary remits of public relations is relating the inside out, and by extension the outside in, gaining the trust of a variety of employees necessitates demonstration that they are truly valued and being listened to for input regarding any final project and its outcomes.

Often it is administrative staff in support roles that are tasked with the record keeping of meetings, etc. What if a (senior) public relations staffer voluntarily agreed to do this role for applicable projects, not only to build trust, but to make the end communication more accurate and honest to all stakeholders, internally and externally?

“A trick is to take on the task of being the scribe. If you take notes, people have a chance to see how you think. If they find your recording of what happened clear and honest, you get a trust point. If the way you summarize complex things is concise but still accurate, you get another. Soon there’s enough trust to lead decisions and take bigger bets. Big upsides.”

If the scribe role is incorporated on a regular basis, the draft launch announcements and support pages should also become increasingly easier and instinctive to do, as a part of the lead role in the organizational narrative.

Some other project management terms learned from The Year Without Pants

Reading through the book occasionally a term or definition would be used of which I was unfamiliar or my understanding was imprecise, so I would make a note, with the consideration that it might come in handy for my own appreciation or direct application in public relations practice down the road. In this case, I was doing it from a project management point of view.

This is a practice I often employ when reading non-fiction books—creating an annotated notes version that will help to imprint the concepts into my longer-term memory and serve as a possible searchable resource down the road. Sometimes I will include my own notes within the copy, about an idea that sparks some original thinking or PR correlations on my part—this process helped me when writing my JPC article, in terms of the central thesis and organization of major points.

For the most part, the following wording of the definitions and examples come directly from author Scott Berkun.

From Eric Raymond’s book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (which is about observations on making software) the central question is asked, “Is it better go invest time in making a big, masterful plan or instead to begin immediately and figure it out as you go?”

Cathedral-style thinking: Imagine the architect of a towering skyscraper or the director of a big film, you probably envision a singular brilliant tyrant who has detailed plans and a grand schedule on how everything will be done and unfold.

The bazaar: Imagine a young punk rock band jamming together. They start with something small, a few basic chords, but quickly revise it, and revise it again, each contributing, borrowing, experimenting, and collaborating as they wish.

Instead of grand central planning, a community of work forms around an idea and grows. Many famous open source projects, such as the Linux operating system, were developed using bazaar attitudes and this inspired Raymond’s book. The absence of a grand schedule removes the constant fear of falling behind that many projects create and replace it with small but frequent payoffs, leading to the belief that the company is making things better.

Product thinkers: People with visions for entire product concepts; these individuals with entrepreneurial instincts are found inside a company.

Broken window theory: By regularly fixing small things, you prevent bigger problems from starting.

Defensive management: The fear of big mistakes or falling behind schedule is what motivates most of the project management processes used around the world. The more experienced that managers are, the longer the list of bad things they’ve seen and are trying to avoid. This is what is called defensive management, because it’s designed to prevent a long list of bad things from happening.

Defensive management is blind to recognizing how obsessing about preventing bad things also prevents good things from happening or sometimes even prevents anything from happening at all.

Continuous deployment: The philosophy of endless small changes, allowing for Automattic to “ship” small modifications or innovations all of the time to its WordPress and WordPress.com blogger clients.

Daily build: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team had an equivalent, where they released a version of the software every day, but the modifications or changes were available exclusively inside the company.

Cargo cult: Superficial mimicry. In anthropological terms…this is a reference to the misguided worship of abandoned airplane landing strips among tribes hoping for the goods that (earlier) airplanes had delivered to return.

Advice paradox: No matter how much advice you have, you must still decide intuitively what to use and what to avoid.

T-shaped skills: This type of person has one very deep skill set, and a wide range of moderate proficiencies.

Heisenberg uncertainty principle: As applied to distributed/remote work, people need both to know themselves well and also how to be “outgoing” (and communicative) online.

Creative abrasion: A theory of work that you need the right amount of friction for good work to happen—not too much and not too little—and that few managers get it right.

Refactoring: The word means you’re going to take the guts out of something one part at a time and rework it without disturbing the rest of the “body.”

Project trap: Postponing little things no one wants to do to until the end, when they cost more to do.

Additional information

If what I’ve written here has piqued your interest but you have yet to decide whether you want to invest money and time into The Year Without Pants, I’d recommend you download the first chapter, watch the video “trailer” for the book and perhaps read some of the Amazon reviews. And of course check out my more-comprehensive JPC article when it publishes—I will update this blog post to include a link.

In the meantime, I welcome your commentary or questions about what I’ve written here.

* * *

Disclosure: In September I was offered a review copy of The Year Without Pants by a publicist for Jossey-Bass (A Wiley Brand). I had no prior relationship with this publicist, Scott Berkun or Automattic—above and beyond PR Conversations being a WordPress.com platform (registered to our Techster, Markus Pirchner). There was no stipulation for me to review the book in any form or platform. I have chosen to do so because I think the book has value, not only about project management, but from a public relations point of view.

Image: I took this photo the day my copy of the book arrived. Behind the book you can catch a glimpse of my treasured AP (i.e., “artist’s proof”) Luke Painter print, National 1. (How cool is it for an artist to be born with the surname of Painter?) Here’s a link to the twitpic photo I’ve used (a different one), where you see more of my print.

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10 Replies to “Pondering public relations as project management

  1. Judy,

    I chuckled when I read this post. In the late 90’s a senior policy executive in the Canadian government told a gathering of senior executives at APEX-the association representing all executives in the Canadian government that the way to develop great policies that are easy to implement is to write the aspirational ideal press release first and work backwards through research and other lines of evidence to support such an eventual announcement. This person was not a communicator but clearly he had grasped the importance of communications not only as a tool but as a means to an end.

    Obviously the communication executives in the room applauded loudly. Not only would this mean we would be part of policy development from the outset but our skills in synthesizing and presenting information was valued.

    To Toni’s point, there is no question that the Stockholm Accords apply in this case and since the Melbourne mandate is designed to complement the SA, it also speaks to the role of PR practitioners in organisations. Project management is a set of skills we use to manage PR activities. I must admit I had not looked at the vantage point offered by this author’s book and in Judy’s post until now.

    1. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story, Jean! And I really appreciate how this part:

      “…to write the aspirational ideal press release first and work backwards through research and other lines of evidence to support such an eventual announcement…”

      speaks to being a data-influenced rather than data-driven culture! Today I see so many (marketing) practitioners going totally the other way: data is thought to be everything, with intuition (and past experience) playing relatively little part.

      Regarding your public relations and project management comment, that’s why I put “pondering” into the title.

      Some books (like Heather Yaxley and Alison Theaker’s wonderful The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit: An Essential Guide to Successful Public Relations Practice, are specifically about public relations. Other books, like this one (and earlier in my career, Henry Mintzberg’s Mangers Not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development) focus on more generalist theories. It’s up to the public relations practitioner to find the correlations for practice, is my view.

      I had written my response to Toni prior to reading your own, but I also appreciate you commenting on the Stockholm Accords and the Melbourne Mandate.

  2. Dear Judy, for me this is not an ‘easy’ post to understand and to ‘digest’.

    I read it twice but have now decided to circulate it to all my Methodos colleagues who are all supposed to be experts in project management.

    Undoubtedly, the practice of project management has lagged behind over recent years, giving way to the many other management buzzwords and fads that come and go day by day.

    Your take of the ‘Year Without Pants’ book and the many related stimuli in your post are suggestive.

    Of course, but this is fully understandable,not everything that strikes you as being new is new in ‘traditional’ management practice, but undoubtedly this is a great ‘provokation’ (yes with the k) for all aware and conscientious public relations professionals and traditional management scholars.

    More than the Melbourne Mandate your ideas are, in my opinion, correlated with the Stockholm Accords and specifically to the concepts of the communicative organization and of fuzzy relationship value networks.

    No wonder the Scandinavian academics (Sven Hamrefors for one) who came up with this fascinating new interpretation of Porter’s traditional vaue chain concept, based their initial work on software and high technology organizations.

    Yet, since the Accords have come out, there are now a number of huge traditional and manufacturing organizations from many countries that have also turned to the value network concept, at least in part of their strategic planning, innovation and actual production frameworks and processes.

    Thank you and very much looking forward to reading your other article when it will appear.

    1. Toni, thank you for reading this post twice and for circulating it to Methodos’ project managers.

      I’d like to clear up at the front end the apparent misconception that I believe the concept of “project management” is a new one. Although I’ve never worked within a role defined as being a project manager, I’m certainly familiar with that form of structure and hierarchy. What was new to me were terms related to it, for example, cargo cult and broken window theory—ones that I think are also useful to recognize in a public relations role.

      Perhaps it is the subtitle of the book, The Future of Work, which lent itself to the misunderstanding. Scott Berkun isn’t defining the future of work as one where all companies use a team-and-project-management structure; instead, he envisions a future where more and more companies are distributed the way Automattic is, meaning people can choose to live and work wherever they want and that leaders can hire the best people for roles, unrestricted by geography and time zones.

      This won’t work for all companies or leaders. Berkun even notes how Yahoo is now reversing its telecommuting option or privilege. Obviously the new CEO feels a physical presence in physical offices is necessary for that company’s mission, goals and needs. On a side note, despite the backlash in the media and by some employees, if the CEO’s various decisions mean the ailing company is going to survive for the longer term, who are we—or those telecommuting employees—to argue?

      The mission of Automattic is to “democratize publishing.” As PR Conversations is on a WordPress.com platform—let alone the fact that the principals have always been “distributed” in different countries (thanks to your original vision)—we are beneficiaries of Autormattic’s ideas into action. Markus Pirchner now has a copy of the book, too. I’m eager to discuss with him how much his take matches mine.

      Speaking of both the Stockholm Accords and Melbourne Mandate, weren’t they both “projects” managed by distributed stakeholders, under specific team leads?

      When I said that Automattic could be a best practices case study for the Mandate, I was thinking of the simplicity and clarity of the three key concepts:

      – define and maintain an organization’s character and values
      – build a culture of listening and engagement; and
      – instill responsible behaviours by individuals and organizations

      Automattic does all of these things. But in its case, its due more to the founder’s principles—such as the absolute need for all of the company products to be Open Source and for employees to work collaboratively—and instinctive decision making, rather than a formal public relations and communication management function. From what I can tell, the company doesn’t have a communication department. I wish it did, because I would love to work there….

      Hopefully my JPC article will give a better sense as to why.

      1. Thank you Judy.

        Believe me, no intention on my part to suggest that project management was a new concept for you…. it just struck me that some terms used in the book are, yes, new… but can be traced to more traditional management approaches.

        And as for Automattic’s not having a communication department…this is the inevitable end of a ‘communicative organization’ as described in the Accords and (as Jean diplomatically adds in his comment) extended (although unmentioned…….) in the mandate: an organization where communication skills and competencies are embedded across every function, where the value is created by the members of networks, amongst the networks, and measured by the quality of relationships.

        In such an organization that listens to and considers stakeholder expectations before making business decisions (this concept instead did make it, somewhat limping, to the mandate) who needs a communication function???

        1. Ah well, you did say that Methodos (the company you started) employs a lot of “project managers,” so I’m not surprised that the terms/concepts that were new to ME were more familiar to you, in whatever traditional management approach to which you are referring.

          I know you have not read Scott Berkun’s book, but I can tell you that the culture and values of the company lent themselves to collaboration and communication, but it actually took a determined effort on Berkun’s part (over the 21 months) to get the distributed employees “communicating” on a more focused basis. Including speaking up more.

          Email is used extremely rarely. The main communication platforms are a cross-company “chat” program, cross-company (primarily internal) blogs called “P2s”, plus newer forms of communication like Skype (including for town halls with the founder). And, occasionally, phone calls, when something can be resolved more quickly one-to-one or what is being shared is personally sensitive.

          Berkun includes in his book something he wrote on his own P2 blog about how communication TENDS to work at Automattic (good and bad) and how it could be improved. I think he did have some impact on how employees thought about more effective communication, not only whilst he was there but for the longer term (as he recruited/mentored successor team leads).

          So…Automattic wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) the type of “communicative organization” as detailed by you and others in the project known as the Stockholm Accords…..

    1. You’re welcome, Tony. When I begin to underline things (and make notes) in the first chapter–because I know I will be returning to re-read or re-think something–I know that my time has been well-invested in a book.

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