Talk to most communications pros, and you’ll find they’re always trying to learn the latest, greatest tools and trends to better themselves.

And yet? Most of us manage projects day-in and day-out without considering the benefits of learning and applying what professional project managers know.

The Project Management Professional (PMP) certification is the leading certification in the project-management industry – similar to PRSA’s APR for PR professionals.

I obtained my PMP certification not too long ago, and let me tell you it is a painstaking process.

How painstaking, you ask?

Completing the initial application requires you to go back in time and describe what you did during each of the 4,500 required hours of management experience.

Then, you’ll spend months cramming for the exam.

And finally, you take the four-hour exam, where they welcome you TSA-style, checking you upon entrance to make sure you are not hiding anything.

The project management course made me re-evaluate several practices in my own work and the work I see from other pros. Here are some things I learned.

Control Change

A tiny change often creates a ripple effect along the entire project.

Professional project managers don’t embark on a project without drafting a change-management plan establishing how to treat changes, scheduling, and requirements.

What is the change assessment process? Is there a threshold of general change acceptance?  Who is the ultimate decision maker?

For example, per the client’s request, the event date needs to move from Tuesday to Wednesday. In the eyes of the client, your fee remains the same because you are performing the same service, only a day later.

Reluctantly, you accept the change, even though you know it involves more work.

You inform the invitees, make new arrangements with suppliers, request updated costs from the vendors, and bill the client accordingly. You fight the printer to change the date on posters already gone to print, invite a whole new pool of media (the ones who originally RSVP’d for Tuesday now cannot make it on Wednesday).

In the end, you spend a full (non-billable) day accommodating the change. Sound familiar?

After completing my PMP prep course, I am no longer the “yes” person approving every change without review.

Now, I take time to analyze the potential impact of each proposed change on scope, schedule, and costs.

Will this “tiny” change create additional risks? Will it add new stakeholders to my project? Finally, is the client willing to embrace additional costs and potential new risks?

And it’s not just client-introduced risks you need to watch out for.

There are times when you’ll need to introduce changes to the project yourself, as a way to prevent or mitigate risks.

So if that’s the case, don’t forget to assess the so-called residual risks that arise from avoiding the main risk.

Be Aware of Scope Creep

Clients like adding services to the workload without reflecting them in the contract.

And as good managers, we often go ahead with the client’s request for the sake of maintaining a good relationship.

However, you should always insist on taking time to evaluate any and all additions.

Whether it’s something small, like another take on a draft of a critical op-ed or something bigger like holding an urgent media conference, put a price on it. Take in to account these three things:

  1. Calculate the extra resources (not just direct costs) you’ll spend.
  2. Add opportunity costs (potential income from activities you should be doing instead).
  3. Can you really afford it? If not, don’t be afraid to say so.

Embrace Quality Assurance

Project managers like to say quality is planned into the project; never inspected in.

So how do you include quality from the beginning? You can start with defining and implementing standards for your systems and processes.

For example, have a check-list of specific steps your staff must perform when composing a morning media memo for a client.

Cost of quality is another concept project managers love.

This is the money you spend on hiring a third-party consultant to audit your crisis preparedness system. Or hiring another admin staff member, or purchasing a top-notch media analytics software.

Typically, up-front prevention such as this is the least expensive way of dealing with errors.

Make Your Project Resilient

Your project is resilient when you are prepared to deal with two types of risk events: “knowable unknowns” and “unknowable unknowns.” Here is a quick guide:

  1. At the planning stage: identify, categorize, prioritize, and assess your risks.
  2. Based on your risk assessment, set some resources aside. This is your contingency reserve for dealing with “knowable unknowns,” things you know may go wrong, like transportation delays.
  3. Add an emergency fund of time and money for dealing with the “unknowable unknowns,” things one cannot predict. This is your management reserve.
  4. Conduct frequent reviews of your risks and constantly monitor your project environment for any warning signs.

Document Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Perhaps your agency has a signature way of conducting content analysis or a specific way of maintaining a media database.

Or maybe you’ve learned from experience that you need to invite 25 reporters to an event if you want at least 10 to show up.

It is valuable knowledge. So put it in writing and add it to your organization’s knowledge base.

That way, when a new member of staff joins the team, you aren’t giving the same instructions over and over again. And more importantly, you don’t lose valuable knowledge when a staff member leaves the company.

Be Aware of Your Political Environment

Remember that time when your client would not sign-off on your budget for a week, citing a new reason every time?

And as you later discovered, they were trying to obtain final approval from a higher up who had no phone signal while on vacation.

In the meantime, your staff was on standby, the venue was expecting payment, and the program deadline was in serious jeopardy.

Understanding all the moving parts in the project—key relationships and interdependencies between stakeholder personal agendas—is an integral part of healthy project planning. So it pays to pay attention.

Project Management Tip: Build or Buy?

Too many comms pros treat outsourcing as some sort of organizational policy – we either do it, or we don’t.

And every time we need to make the decision of building vs. buying (or doing in-house vs. outsourcing), we claim to have considered all the factors: costs, benefits, and potential risks of each scenario.

Yet, somehow, the final decision is often irrational.

In contrast, professional project managers, when facing a build vs. buy dilemma, start with a simple formula:

Difference in Build vs. Buy / Difference in Monthly Fees = Minimum project duration where it makes sense to build the solution in house

For instance, a new project requires an analysis of international media coverage for a period of three months, a function your firm does not routinely perform.

To execute this task in-house, you need to purchase software for $6,000 and spend $300 per month on labor costs.

Alternatively, a potential vendor will do the job for a flat fee of $500 per month with no upfront costs.

A quick formula (6,000/200 = 30) shows that outsourcing is a better idea as long as project duration is under 30 months.

Not every build vs. buy decision should be based on numbers alone.

After all, when you do the work yourself, even at a higher cost, you get to control quality and safeguard intellectual property. And your staff learns a new skill.

However, and PPMs agree on this point, you should not bury financial rationale under various intangible factors and abstract reasoning.

Project Management Deserves Your Focus

Communications professionals wear many hats—content creators, public dialogue facilitators, social media gurus, and more.

But many of us are also project managers at least half the time, working to get things done on time and generate profit.

So by learning best practices in project management, implementing them daily, and even by pursuing a PMP certification, you are enhancing your skill set.

And this allows you to get things done more efficiently and effectively while gaining a competitive advantage.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Katya Komarova

Katya Komarova is an independent public relations consultant and a visiting instructor at the University of South Florida. Throughout her career, she has developed and implemented a number of successful campaigns in three countries, both with agencies and in-house.

View all posts by Katya Komarova