On the Practice of successful Issues Management

“When you’ve spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment, it’s exciting to have a real crisis on your hands.”, Margaret Thatcher.

A survey of CEOs revealed their expectation that communications chiefs be equipped to “see around corners” and anticipate how different audiences will react to different events, messages and channels (The Authentic Enterprise, 2007, p. 44).

Issues management is all about facilitating communication leadership in organizations. In fact, the USC Annenberg 2007 GAP V survey of senior Public Relations practitioners revealed that those with direct budgetary responsibility for issues management (42 percent) were more likely to report higher levels of C-suite support, effective working relationships with other departments, larger budgets, and more access to resources for research, evaluation and strategic implementation. So emphatic was the relationship between issues management and key indicators of effective practice, the authors added establishing an issues management strategy to the list of 13 best practices for Public Relations.

Issues management defined
Issues management is an anticipatory, strategic management process that helps organizations detect and respond appropriately to emerging trends or changes in the socio-political environment. These trends or changes may then crystallize into an “issue,” which is a situation that evokes the attention and concern of influential organizational public and stakeholders. At its best, issues management is stewardship for building, maintaining and repairing relationships with stakeholders and stake-seekers.

Organizations engage in issues management if decision-makers are actively looking for, anticipating, and responding to shifting stakeholder expectations and perceptions likely to have important consequences for the organization. Such responses may be operational and immediately visible, such as McDonald’s anticipatory move from plastic to paper packaging in 1990. Other common strategic responses are direct, behind-the-scenes negotiations with lawmakers and bureaucrats, and proactive campaigns using paid and earned media to influence how issues are framed.

Issues managed
In the context of corporate issues management, issues are controversial inconsistencies caused by gaps between the expectations of corporations and those of their publics. These gaps lead to a contestable point of difference, the resolution of which can have important consequences for an organization. While organizations, stakeholders and other constituencies may be concerned about the same issue, their perspectives are rarely the same. The role of the issues management process is to divine and determine the existence and likely impacts of these contestable points of difference.

Issues are commonly described as having a lifecycle comprising five stages–early, emerging, current, crisis and dormant. In simple terms, as the issue moves through the first four stages, it attracts more attention and becomes less manageable from the organization’s point of view. In other words, if the organization’s issues management process detects an issue in the earliest stage, more response choices–such as product modification, the introduction of new conduct codes or anticipatory collaboration with key interest groups–are available to decision-makers. As the issue matures, the number of engaged stakeholders, publics and other influencers expands, positions on the issue become more entrenched and the strategic choices available to the organization shrink. If and when the issue becomes a crisis for the organization, the only available responses are reactive and are sometimes imposed by external parties, such as government agencies. Not all issues reach the crisis stage and many crises are not the result of an underlying issue.
Strategic options

Issues management is the proactive application of four strategic options:

  1. Strategic business planning
  2. Getting the house in order – corporate responsibility
  3. Scouting the terrain – scanning, identification, monitoring, analysis and priority setting, and
  4. Strong defense and smart offence – issues communication.

Developed by and for practitioners, Palese and Crane propose a four-stage model comprising issue identification, analysis, strategy and measurement – or in other words

  1. Issue identification and analysis
  2. Strategic decision-making and action
  3. Evaluation

Elizabeth Dougall, Ph.D., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did a very good article on issues management that can be seen here.

I also did a short presentation on how to set up a proper issues management…please see below.


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