To ignore an issue is to invite a crisis. So when is an ‘issue’ an issue? When do you need to practise good issues management?
An issue occurs when there is a gap between your policies, performance, products or public commitments, and your stakeholder expectations. It usually threatens reputation damage. The issues management process seeks to close that gap through policy decisions or communication of your perspective to change those stakeholder expectations.
Managing these issues is not the job just of the communication department. The communication department can only communicate what the organization is doing to manage the issue as it evolves. But because communication departments are at the sharp-end of stakeholder engagement, it often falls to the communication team to explain and persuade senior management and operational people how what they are doing is impacting on the organization’s reputation and what they need to do to mitigate it.
Not all crises spring from unexpected causes and not all crises are unavoidable. Organizations today face a barrage of threats – from ethical concerns to activist campaigns, financial-market rumors to litigation, industrial accidents to terrorism – as well as more subtle issues that can grow quickly to undermine an organization’s ability to compete.
Sometimes the issue is quite simply one of confidence. An underlying issue that could build to a point where it becomes a crisis can be mitigated by a good issues management process that identifies and tracks the evolution of a multiplicity of issues that impact on confidence.
What is good issues management?
1. Issue identification: What issues could arise either because of the organization’s activities, industry or its scale? A vulnerabilities audit should reveal the internal and external factors that could evolve into issues to be managed. These issues can include system failures, customer service problems, health and environmental impacts, proposed legislation, the media environment and competitor initiatives. Regular PEST & SWOT analyses can help.
2. Issue classification & prioritization:
Which of these issues could cause significant damage to the organization’s reputation or operations if not managed effectively? Once issues have been identified, they can be prioritized to allow focus on those that have the greatest likelihood of happening and would have the most detrimental impact if they did. Some of these issues might merit the creation of a specific response plan. Less severe issues may only require the preparation of a stand-by statement.
3. Monitoring & analysis: Ongoing monitoring ensures that changes in the intensity of an issue or its likelihood of occurrence are spotted immediately and assessed. How is this issue evolving on a monthly or even daily basis? How are we evolving to meet it?
4. Options for change: What steps can we take to change the course of an issue’s progression by either the organization or the stakeholders?
5. Action programme: Execute the plan to close the gap between your policies, performance, products or public commitments and your stakeholder expectations.
6. Evaluation: Has the issue lessened in severity over time? Did we respond effectively to the issue, preventing its emergence as a crisis? What lessons were learned?
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