How to Use Agile as a Strategic Management Tool in PR & Communications

By Christine Bowles, Head, Marketing & Communications at Renaix and Committee Member at CIPR Greater London Group.

Comms departments are increasingly adopting elements of Agile methodology to develop strategy and for project management as opposed to a linear, step by step, waterfall management approach. The uncertain and turbulent COVID-19 world in which we are now working has accelerated the need for responsive and reflective practice boosting professional development growth and sustainable career progression.

Senior Comms practitioners came together for a CIPR Greater London Group virtual event recently to discuss the origins of Agile and its values and principles and to determine its relevance for PR and communications.

Speakers included Dr Heather Yaxley, Managing Consultant, Applause Consultancy who gave an overview of what Agile management is, and what it isn’t, and why adopting Agile principles is a good career move. Rachel Picken, Director, Agile PR & Communications, and Rachel Hammond, Digital Strategist, The Hammond Agency explored learning and practical takeaways on how to get started using Agile, including a case study on the Truro Town Deal for the Truro Town Fund, a bid for the government’s Towns Fund. The Truro bid has been Agile in its approach in building community engagement and public affairs.

There were also talks from Jacky Clake, Head of Web and Intranet, and Mark Lambert, Staff Engagement Lead, from UK Research and Innovation, a new public body launched in April 2018. They delivered a case study on launching a new integrated website and intranet within a Scrum Team.

The concept of Agile has its origins in the software development world, lean manufacturing, and project management. Alongside “Kaizen”, or continuous improvement, and “Kanban” or workflow management boards, the most important question coming from the Toyota Production process, is “why are we doing this?” This idea that removing waste and enabling people to work more productively and recognising efficiency is not on its own a guarantee of success.

Dr Heather Yaxley put forward Agile performance building blocks and career progression models, following through to an Agile professional development plan.

The thinking behind being if Agile is inherently what we practice in PR, then we should apply it to our own professional development, our functions, and the value we add to our organisations. Ann Pilkington, Director, PR Academy has written about how project management is an essential skill for communicators. Communicators are often one of the forgotten elements of project management and projects are frequently undertaken without thinking of the importance of communicating within an organisation and with other stakeholders.

An Agile department or company is therefore one that equips itself with the necessary tools by adopting the relevant processes, allowing it to react quickly to internal and external change. Change can be in the scope of work, ways in which the work is done and rules that must be followed etc.

This is a marked change to traditional PR strategy which focuses on long term strategic planning.

Agile values and principles, which came out of the IT Development world in the form of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, are being taught, as well as SMART objectives, in comms qualifications.

Here is a summary of the Agile aspects that were used in the projects discussed, referencing the four key values of the Agile Manifesto and the twelve principles:

1 Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: Early and continuous delivery to satisfy the client; Businesspeople, and developers to work together daily on the project; Face to face meetings wherever possible

Relationships for all projects were built across numerous platforms including Zoom, Teams, Messenger, email, and regular face to face wherever possible, alongside show and tells using Trello and Slack.  Daily “stand ups” followed by “show and tells” for all staff leading to “retrospectives” and constant refocusing of goals. Retrospectives are where participants look back at what has gone well, and what could be done better, thereby enabling open, honest, and frank feedback instantly. The UKRI’s new integrated website project was required to follow government digital service standards which included a formal tender procurement, formal sign off and reporting at each stage.

Otherwise, both UKRI projects were inherently Agile with an extensive discovery exercise at the outset focusing on end users, who they were and what they were trying to achieve. This included an alpha proof of concept – test, iterate, test, then beta final build and design – and again test, iterate, test, working in two-week sprints or short bursts of time. The goal and challenges for the new website were to integrate 10 very different websites and functionality, maintain these websites alongside the project, win consensus at all levels at a time of huge cultural change and work and engage during a pandemic. No mean feat! For the new UKRI intranet, as for the website, the key goal was to integrate the 10 intranet sites.

2 Working software over comprehensive documentation: Simplicity is essential; Continuous attention to excellence; Sustainable development by maintaining a constant pace; Regular reflections

For the Truro Town Deal bid, short and focused strategic briefs, instead of a detailed plan, were presented in online workshops using MIRO and Mural white boards and slide decks. The strategy was “Digital First” and a website was used to gather feedback to add value quickly in a delivery timeframe of 6 weeks. Social media, email newsletter and partnership support channels fed into the website. A branding workshop to deliver a “Look and Feel” design brief was presented over a 1-hour webinar. For UKRI, with the pandemic rendering traditional communication channels such as face to face and print redundant, there was the opportunity to fast-track the private social network Yammer. This platform helped to give employees the space to communicate and look out for each other working remotely, as they would do in the workplace. All UKRI staff were trained by APM (Association of Project Management).

3 Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: Build project around motivated individuals; Appoint self-organised teams, and trust them to get the job done

For the client and stakeholders of the Truro Town Deal bid, building relationships through the tender process, cultivating a sense of risk share as opposed to client vs supplier, keeping it simple, working with stakeholders not against, and a sense checking over sign off all ensured continuous delivery and value.

There was hugely supportive media coverage with 4 front page splashes; community champions provided advocacy and engagement and there have been 200 pieces of feedback so far. For UKRI, the pandemic did have one benefit in that they were able to reach over 1,000 employees across the organisation via webinars and video conferencing, allowing engaging content to be demonstrated and gaining more feedback.

4 Responding to change over following a plan: Welcome change even if late in the day; Deliver solutions frequently; Working solutions are the primary measure of success

The Truro Town Deal bid representatives overcame the pandemic and second lockdown by shifting goals and continually asking, “what does success look like?” This meant pivoting feedback tactics around physical point of sale ballot boxes, and prioritising advertising space and negotiating editorial in local newspapers. Horizon scanning was used to analyse future trends and developments that might affect the project. There was built in contingency to manage change, and change was positively welcomed, even when arriving late.

This was managed by weekly/two-week sprint plans and making workable solutions the principle measure of success. The website and new intranet have now gone live and received good feedback; the second phase of the website will involve exporting 85,000 pieces of content. For the UKRI projects, the key learning points were managing senior business leaders’ expectations, as Agile is still not widely understood, balancing user needs with business needs, underestimating the skills and flexibility needed to work at pace and flexibly during a pandemic, and early and frequent engagement across all teams.

Although the projects were effectively about creating web sites, that is traditional software development with a comms twist, it is clear that all were soliciting far more in feedback and collaborating with stakeholders and clients to build strategy as they went along and pivoting accordingly. Those not used to software development may not be familiar with “sprints”, “daily stand ups”, “retrospectives” and “discovery phase” and it is interesting to think about how this might relate and be incorporated into PR projects.

I believe there are good longer-term applications for PR and comms practitioners who may incorporate this approach into general project management and to wider PR practice, where we tend to set long term strategy and then measure at the start and end.

If you would like to listen to the presentations in full or if you missed the event, CIPR members can access the recording via the CIPR CPD database and log 5 CPD points.

Our next CIPR Greater London Group event The Future of Work. Will Tech or Experience Lead? takes place on 19 January 2021. For more details and to book, visit the Eventbrite page here.

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