28 August, 2023

High-Profile Projects: How to Take Them on and Lead Like a Pro

High-profile projects carry more risk than those that get less attention. It is not that things are more likely to go wrong. But it’s the profile and attention that can amplify the consequences of mistakes.

And high profile projects tend also to be the subject of more speculation, gossip, and rumor. So, it isn’t just the risks that happen… it’s also the perceived slip-ups and false reports.

For these reasons, managing and leading high-profile projects is one of the biggest challenges you can face in project management. While you may not be ready to take on projects with a massive public profile, it never hurts to understand the principles.

Our Agenda

Here is what we will look at:

So, if you’re ready, let’s get into it!

What is a High Profile Project?

High-Profile Projects: How to Take Them on and Lead Like a Pro

For our purposes, high-profile projects are those that get a lot more attention than others around them. For example, this may be because they carry more:

  • strategic importance
  • significant risk
  • emotional resonance
  • financial consequence
  • political impact

Massive Public Profile

Clearly, projects with a massive public profile will garner a lot of interest from the general population. They will feature in the press, television, and social media. Typical examples include:

  • Mega-engineering projects like tunnels, bridges, airports, and dams.
  • Huge political endeavors like wall-building, Brexit, and peace treaties.
  • Much-anticipated technology projects like phone networks, new devices, and government automation.
  • Public interest projects like an Olympic park, a national celebration, or an inauguration/coronation.
  • Disaster recovery, like the aftermaths of hurricanes, earthquakes, and conflict.

Common Features of High-Profile Projects

We can see with all of these a number of common features that will inform our assessment of how to lead these kinds of projects:

  1. They really matter to a large number of people.
  2. There are severe consequences for failure.
  3. Some commentators will have differing and strongly-held opinions about them
  4. …and also about how the project team should address them.
  5. Press and commentators will thrive on conflict and failure
  6. …and social media on speculation, rumor, and conspiracy theories.
  7. Often, those in the know say very little; while those who do say a lot, know very little.
  8. When they go well, the general mood is to accept that this is as things should be and move attention to the next shiny news story
  9. …but, when they go badly, the mood is one of anger, blame, and recrimination. Everyone can tell you why it happened and what they should have done differently.

High-Profile Projects and ‘Major Projects’

Not all high-profile projects are major projects in terms of scale. And, while most are, not all major projects have a high profile. But, if you are going to be working on a Major Project, I do recommend you look at our article, The Major Projects World: What you Need to Know and How to Get Started, from guest author, Jonathan Norman, the Knowledge Manager of the Major Projects Association.

Impossible Projects

What if Your High-Profile Project also feels like something of an ‘Impossible Project’? Well, we have you covered there too! We have a short video and a comprehensive article:

Your High Profile Projects

Your high-profile projects may not attract the attention of the national media. They won’t, perhaps, be the subject of breakfast table conversations across the land.

But maybe, you will be working on a project that ignites a little more interest than others you have done. And possibly, it will be the one that people in your organization or community are most concerned about.

So, let’s consider what you need to do differently in these circumstances.

Your Priorities for Leading a High-Profile Project

It would be quite reasonable (but wrong) of you to say:

Never mind ‘high profile’. I just need to do what I always do. If I do a professional job, then everything will go well.

This is wrong because it’s naïve.

Let me Explain…

In a word… ‘politics’. Politics changes everything.

And politics is not just ‘politicians in chambers debating big issues’. Whenever you have two people in a room and a significant topic of discussion, there’s politics. We’ve written about it before:

The fact that people take an interest in your project, and the fact that they have views that matter to them, are important. They change the response you need.

The Bottom Line on High-Profile Projects

To lead a high-profile project, you need this formula:

The Formula for leading a high profile project is exemplary management and leadership plus exceptional public relations
High Profile Project Leadership = Exemplary Management and Leadership + Exceptional Public Relations Share on X

Why this Formula Works

This formula addresses the three significant risks of a high-profile project:

  1. Slip-up, mistake, failure. This is why you need exemplary management and leadership.
  2. Perceived slip-up. This is why you need good public relations (PR) – to manage expectations, rumors, and perceptions.
  3. Fall-out from a slip-up or a perceived slip-up. This requires exemplary management of the consequences (crisis management) and exceptional consequential PR (reputation protection)

This is How We’ve Organized this Article

We cover each of these three challenges, highlighting the most valuable Project Management practices, and putting other disciplines into PM terms.

Preventing Slip-ups

‘Exemplary Management and Leadership’ – that would seem to be an invitation to write a full guide to Project Management. And I would certainly recommend you take a look at our Core Course programs if that’s what you need!

But here, I want to focus on the elements of good standard project management that you need to give extra weight to. These are the ones that the high profile of your project pushes to the fore. Because these are the levers for addressing the incremental risks that high-profile projects face.

There are Four Areas to focus on

  1. Project Governance
  2. Risk Management
  3. Quality Management
  4. Stakeholder Engagement

We will look at each of these in turn.

Project Governance

Project governance is rarely considered to be at the ‘sexy end’ of our discipline. But it is where you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of success versus failure.

A small amount of good governance goes a long way in preventing slip-ups and failures. Let’s answer the question, ‘what is project governance?’ before moving on.

The Three Disciplines of Project Governance

Project governance is an important topic that encompasses three disciplines:

  1. Direction setting
  2. Decision-making
  3. Project oversight

Each of these contributes to ensuring you get your project right. And, if ever there were a time when you need to get it right, it’s when you are the subject of a lot of attention.

Please take a look at our feature article: What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot].

The Principle Governance Tool for High-Profile Projects

It is no coincidence that the British Government uses one particular mechanism above all for focusing good governance on its high-profile projects. This is the Gateway Review, or Stage Gate Process.

For small projects, the gateway review team (usually three people) is drawn from senior peers of the project sponsor, within the same Government Department.

As the scale and profile of the project ratchets up, the Gateway review team increases its:

  • distance from the project
  • level of seniority and expertise

Increasingly, the members are more senior, more experienced project and business professionals. The team starts to draw members from outside the Department. At first, this is from other departments. Then, it is from outside Governement; drawing on retired Senior Civil Servants and high-level business leaders.

A series of scheduled and thorough reviews is one of the best ways to keep a high-profile project properly on track.

To learn more about Gateway Reviews, do take a look at our article: Why the Stage-Gate Process will Make You a Better Project Manager.


By the way, British Government projects all run on using the PRINCE2 project management methodology.

Risk Management

High-profile projects present higher risk levels. So, risk management must surely be a crucial area of focus for you.

We’ve published several articles about risk management (and doubtless will publish more in the future). The two I’d particularly recommend you look at now are:

The Risks to Look at

For high-profile projects, you need to add a focus on the political, reputational, and stakeholder risks. In particular, think about:

  • how personal and political agendas relate to your project
  • ways misinformation and inaccuracies can spread
  • who your spokespeople are
  • how members of the public get information and the questions they will ask

Quality Management

Another factor that the high profile of your project will amplify is quality. Or, to be more precise, the impact of under-delivery on quality expectations.

Notice this…

I said ‘quality expectations’. Not quality standards.

Sure, if quality drops below the standards, that’s an issue. But, it’s one any project manager should be equipped to prevent and deal with if it happens.

But it’s the perceptions that are different as the profile rises. Sometimes you will hit your carefully chosen quality standards, but some of your stakeholders will not believe those standards were correct. Or maybe, they will think you are working to a different set of standards.

I this case, you have succeeded against your own criteria, but still have a public relations problem, as some stakeholders are disappointed.

Expectation Management

This is the key here. But even so, some stakeholders will know what o expect, and still not like it. So, at the point of delivery, they will then choose to fight you on the standards you delivered. Your two friends here will be:

  1. Good governance
    – to create an audit trail that will demonstrate your diligence. But this won’t satisfy the political agendas, and
  2. A proactive PR campaign
    – to engage other stakeholders to ensure that the negative commentary does not gain sufficient traction to undermine wider perceptions of your project.

Take a look at our article on Quality Management…

Stakeholder Engagement

So, in some ways, this whole article comes down to stakeholder engagement. As I often say (as one of my 12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note):

Stakeholders will Determine the Success, or Not, of your Project Share on X

In fact, several of my 12 Project Management Rules You’d be Wise to Note are about stakeholders!

Detailed Guidance on Stakeholder engagement

We’ve published plenty of guidance on stakeholder engagement already. Take a look at some of these articles:

Get Yourself Support

I think the final priority you need to consider is the importance of having a support network. High-profile projects can be difficult and stressful. So, you’ll need two forms of support:

  • Guidance to help you think through the strategic, technical, and political challenges you’ll face
  • Support to help you deal with the stresses and frustrations that come with this project

If you don’t have a coach or a mentor, it’s time to go looking for one. We have several resources to help you understand what they are, how they can help you, and the best ways to go about finding one:

Maybe, at the end of this, you’ll want to give something back!

And finally, if you are from a minority group within your workplace context – whether by gender, race, culture, or sexual preference, perhaps – you will get a lot from my conversation with Anita Phagura of Fierce Project Management – and the article she wrote for us:

Preventing the Perception of a Slip-up on Your High Profile Project

There’s a great quote from President Kennedy…

The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

President John F Kennedy
Commencement Address at Yale University, 11 June 1962
John F Kennedy - The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

Am I alone in seeing the deep irony of this quote, considering the wealth of speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding his death?

Public Relations (PR)

As soon as you sense your project will have a high profile, you need to start your public relations activities. This is likely to be towards the end of the Project Definition stage.

Public relations serve a number of roles:

  • Informing people about your project
  • Creating publicity for the project, to help promote it
  • Fostering a positive impression
  • Countering negative impressions
  • Building trust and acceptance
  • Filling in the gaps that would allow rumor and speculation to flourish
  • Explaining issues and over-runs

Just the Facts?

Is the role of PR to persuade, or is it about just providing facts? The answer is ‘neither – and both’.

For sure, there is always a need to provide accurate information about your project. But facts never persuade anyone of anything. They only create a justification for the beliefs we choose to hold or the decisions we want to make.

So, good PR needs to combine a trustworthy stream of information with advocacy and argument that appeal, appropriately, to emotion as well as logic. You need to create a PR program that starts by establishing your trustworthiness and authority. And you must maintain the integrity of your information and editorial flow, so you never compromise the trust you have built up. Rather, you must seek to enhance it.

PR Specialist

This means distinguishing between factual information and interpretation or advocacy. This can be a full-time responsibility on a major project. You should consider appointing someone to lead and deliver this, and even hiring a PR specialist – either as a team member or as a contracted supplier.

Many PR specialists are ex-journalists, with substantial experience of the media. Increasingly, you’ll find them with a lot of social media experience too. Their role is to analyze your stakeholders and create an influencing and communication plan.

Types of PR

A full exploration of PR is outside the scope of this article. But, in summary, there are many forms of PR. You’ll probably need several of them:

Community Engagement

Getting to know and meet stakeholders who are directly affected by your project. Your purpose is to inform, win support, and counter any problematic perceptions and objections. Note that PR does not include the wider stakeholder engagement role of consulting and learning from your stakeholders.

Internal PR

Also called ‘Employee Relations’, this is looking after the perceptions, morale, and loyalty of your staff.

Investor Relations

For large, publicly-listed corporations, there will be an internal PR team that looks after the needs of its shareholders. Principally, this will be the institutional shareholders. Often, they will work closely with the Media Relations PR team who deals with the serious business media.

Media Relations

Dealing with the media (usually mainstream TV, radio, and press) to create positive coverage for your project, and to counter incorrect stories.

Social Media

This is now such a big and complex source of commentary and perception that it merits its own specialists. especially as the ‘rules of the road’ are subtle, unwritten, and fast-changing. It is far easier to get this badly wrong than nicely right. Yet refusing to engage can be a hazard too.

Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR)

This is an extension of community engagement that seeks to give something positive back to communities that are affected by your project. This is particularly important if some of the necessary effects are adverse.

Public Affairs

This is a euphemism for lobbying! It’s about winning over public authorities to your point of view. Often it’s about securing necessary concessions (like planning permits) or even grants. This is a rather specialist area of PR.

Crisis Management

We’ll talk about this in the last main section of this article. When something big goes wrong, this is the specialized branch of PR that will aim to protect the reputation of the client organization.

Make Public Relations a Leadership Role

As your high-profile project assumes a greater and greater public profile, the need for leadership of the PR function increases.

As a project leader, your public relations program is key to perceptions of your success. You will need to take an active role in understanding, winning, and tracking internal and external confidence in your project. Yes, you will be guided by your PR team. But you must retain strategic leadership of this function. And you must also fully involve your project sponsor.


One last point.

Honesty is not the best policy…

it is the only policy.

Integrity and professional ethics are essential at all times. Especially when things go badly wrong. But think about it…

When things do go badly wrong, you will need – more than ever – for people to trust you.

And by then, it will be too late to build trust from scratch. This is why you need to start the trust-building process from Day 1 of your PR campaign, and maintain your integrity throughout.

So, with that said, it’s time to consider…

Handling the Fall-out from Slip-ups (or Perceived Slip-ups)

Keep Calm and Don't Panic

Keep calm and don’t panic.

It sounds like a truism, but it is good advice. Clear thinking will be essential.

Your first priority will be to stabilize the situation to ensure it doesn’t get worse. Then, you’ll need to work the problem to make it better. You’ll need to decide whether to get back to your plan as soon as possible, or whether your plan is now dead.

Start with our video:

For more in-depth information, follow-up with our article, ‘Project Crisis… Are you Ready?’

Plan Continuation Bias

Plan Continuation Bias is the name that accident investigators give to the ‘tunnel vision’ that makes us want to just carry on with our initial plan – even in the presence of overwhelming reasons not to. Apparently, airline pilots sometimes call it ‘get-there-itis’. It’s the ‘one last push’ approach, which drives us to stick to an out-of-date plan.

Two Priorities

The two immediate priorities that arise are the need to manage the situation, and the need to manage perceptions. The situation management boils down to:

You’d do both of these whether your project has a high profile or not. So we are going to focus on the second priority: managing perceptions.

Reputation Protection

Reputation Protection (RP – curiously, PR backwards) is the name for the PR effort that follows a crisis or disaster. This is a highly specialized discipline, so all I can do is give you a flavor of the components that it involves.

Indicative Action List

  • Creating a first statement – often called a ‘holding statement. The RP team will co-ordinate this, but the work will fall to a combination of:
    • Technical experts – probably, this will include you
    • Legal experts
    • Business leaders
  • Organizing press contacts – the press will need to know how to make inquiries. There will probably be a webpage r even website, a press office, and – when the team is ready – a press conference
  • Briefing and rehearsing spokespeople – if business leaders (or you) will speak on behalf of the organization, the Reputation Protection team will help you rehearse staying calm and answering any anticipatable questions. If it’s a PR or media expert that will speak, they will need a thorough technical briefing
  • Building a Decision Tree – an escalation route to ensure everyone knows who will be involved in which types of decision
  • Media Logging – A process to log and handle all media inquiries and respond to all reports (if needed)
  • Timetable and Actio list – a rolling schedule of what to do and when

Have You Had to Lead a High-Profile Project?

Please do share your experience and advice in the comments below. We’ll look forward to responding to every contribution.

And if you are taking on a high-profile project in the near future, are there any questions we haven’t answered? Let us know, and we’ll do our best to help you.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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