Jim Cronin, senior manager of public relations for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, has some advice for IT organizations embarking on large projects with numerous constituencies and participants to keep informed: Don’t wait until it’s all over to bring in the communications department.
which recently completed a massive update of its aging lottery terminals over a four-year period, had to make sure the 8,000-plus retailers affected, as well as 8,000-plus employees, government officials, its sales force and the five vendors across three continents were all kept up to date with the same information. Here’s how they did it:
Pipeline: Give me a little background about the role communications played in this project.
Jim Cronin: We set up a project team that covers all those areas of responsibility you need to launch a project like this, which includes communications. Our role is to develop a communications plan that ensures all our internal audiences receive the same clear, concise, timely information about the project (as external audiences do). The internal audiences included in this case our retailers, our sales force and the government, as well as staff. Externally, we also develop a communications plan to deal with the media and also to deal with consumers who are interested in how the project rolls out.
Pipeline: At what stage was communications brought in?
JC: It’s extremely important that you’re there from concept because to develop communications at the end of a project is extremely problematic. It’s important that communications be at the table from the concept stage, particularly when you’re dealing with government, which requires a significant heads up on projects like this, but also to ensure we develop key messages and positioning of the project and you really need to be at the table from Day 1 to do that.
Pipeline: Describe the scope and challenges involved in managing this project.
JC: First of all, it was a huge project for us, corporately. It was quite a complex project as well, because you’re dealing with technology. Part of the challenge is being able to communicate this to the internal and external audiences in a clear and concise manner because most of us not are not technology experts. We do that through working closely with our technology group and putting into layman’s language how the terminal works, what its benefits are and how it’s going to be implemented.
Pipeline: Pretty well all organizations have PR departments they use to publicize projects and deal with media on them, but is it common for large organizations to use their communications departments to deal with internal stakeholders on large projects?
JC: We believe it’s extremely important that our internal audiences, which include our employees, the sales force and government, be kept up to speed and updated on what’s happening on projects of this size. The most important part is to ensure whether you’re dealing with internal audiences or external audiences that you have same consistent messaging explanation of what’s happening. You can’t communicate one thing internally and another externally. We have 8,000 employees, so when you’re dealing with an employee population of that size, anything you communicate to them you must consider to be public, given there are 8,000 of them and it will get out on the street.
Pipeline: How is managing internal project-related communications different from managing external, media-oriented communications?
JC: I think it’s just that even though you’re using the same type of information, you have to tailor it to the internal audience and timeliness is extremely important. We don’t want our employees to read about the project in the Toronto Star (instead of) hearing about it through our intranet site. It’s important for us that our employees have the same level of information as our external audiences do.
Pipeline: One of the things the project director mentioned in an interview was the need to make sure the retail owners were not relying on rumours for their updates. How did you stay ahead of the grapevine?
JC: There are a variety of ways we do that. We have a retailer newsletter called Lotto Post, which allows us to communicate on a monthly basis or more often as required about what’s happening with projects. The other thing we can do includes retailer bulletins, which go out on a regular basis and provide more concise information in a shorter format. We also deal with our RAMs – our retail account managers. That’s basically a lottery sales force who talk to our 10,000 retailers about the project, its benefits and the timing of it. It’s important that our retailers – they are really our sales force because we don’t sell the tickets ourselves, they’re sold through our retailers across Ontario — really have some clear information on what’s happening with the project, because ultimately they’ll have to explain it to their customers.
Pipeline: Can you give me any examples of rumours that needed to be dealt with and how?
JC: Once a project team has pulled together you have representatives from a wide variety of departments in the company, which in itself will begin to result in water cooler talk. So from Day 1 we want to ensure first of all that the team members are all using the same consistent information when talking to their respective departments or divisions. Then we determine the timing for more formal communications with employees through the intranet site, e-mail, announcements, that type of thing. So you want to ensure because we’re dealing with a multimillion-dollar project that they have the right information, as opposed to speculation on the size of the project, the number of lottery terminals, cost, that sort of thing. We try to be upfront with that.
Pipeline: IT has been getting better at referring to best practices to use on future projects. What kinds of things did communications apply from past projects and what did it learn this time it will apply to future projects?
JC: One of most important things is timing of the involvement of communications. It needs to be at the table from Day 1. I think many organizations make the mistake of bringing in their communications people at the end of the project. At that point it makes it extremely difficult for the communications people to really understand the project. That’s part of (the issue): we need to have a level of understanding of the project from Day 1, so at the end of the project we absolutely understand it 100 per cent and we can use our skills to communicate it concisely to the external audiences. I think, unfortunately, though, many organizations see communications as an end of the process function, and then it becomes extremely difficult. The other thing related to that is part of our role is issues management, and that’s identifying potential public issues with any of our projects. That’s extremely difficult to do at the end of the project, and in fact, can be costly because unless you’ve identified an issue early on in the process you could proceed with development of marketing materials and a variety of things that in the end may not see the light of day because you’ve identified an issue after all this stuff has been printed.