Organisations have multiple reputations with multiple audiences. This explains why Ryanair can still be a hugely successful airline – in terms of number of customers and profitability – while still having an abysmal reputation for customer service.
Similarly, public outrage over the Post Office’s brutal and unjust treatment of many of its sub-postmasters and mistresses is matched by the trust that millions of customers have in the Post Office counter service that they use every day. That Post Office reputation is rooted in centuries of dependable, unglamorous competence by local personalities.
But who was caring whether it was under threat in the background from simmering public resentment about post office closures or the digitalisation that many especially older customers did not want? Or the managerial culture that preferred to put faith in a known-to-be flawed IT system than those local personalities whom they ten vilified and criminalised? Trust is not something that you can draw down upon to balance your misdeeds (or downgrade your service). This is why organisations should constantly be practising good issues management.
An issue ignored can be a crisis invited. And an issue occurs when there is a gap between your policies, performance, products or public commitments and your stakeholder expectations. In other words, when an organisation or its leaders demonstrate incompetence, lack of moral integrity or empathy, arrogance or deceit. Organisations today face a barrage of threats – from ethical concerns to activist campaigns, financial-market rumours to litigation, outdated policies to poor corporate or personal behaviours – as well as more subtle issues that can grow quickly to undermine an organisation’s ability to get on with its core business.
The issues management process seeks to close that gap through policy decisions or by changing those stakeholder expectations through effective communication of your perspective. Managing these issues is not just the job of the communications team. But because communication teams are at the sharp end of stakeholder engagement, it often falls to Comms to explain and persuade senior management and operational people how what they are doing is impacting on the organisation’s core story about itself (one of its reputations) and what they might need to do to ameliorate it.
So what is good issues management?
- Issue identification: What issues could arise either because of the organisation’s activities, industry or its scale? A reputation audit that takes an outside-in as well as an inside-out approach 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, competitor initiatives and culture, along with having clarity about what society and your audiences expect from you and your behaviour. Regular PEST & SWOT analyses can help.
- Issue classification & prioritisation: Which of these issues could cause significant damage to the organisation’s reputation or operations if not managed effectively? Once issues have been identified, they can be prioritised 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.
- 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?
- Options for change: What steps can we take to change the course of an issue’s progression by either the organisation or the stakeholders?
- Action programme: Execute the plan to close the gap between your policies, performance, products or public commitments and your stakeholder expectations.
- 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?
The Post Office doesn’t seem to have done this in any coherent way. One day Ryanair may discover that being able to sell cheap tickets in spite of its low levels of customer service does not exempt them from a future reputational crisis. People have deep-rooted rules of thumb (‘heuristics’). If, for instance, a Ryanair jet crashed or passengers were harmed due to cost-cutting in some way, then people may well see those low-ticket prices as the reason. Surely, they had to cut corners somewhere to maintain those prices … and thus Ryanair’s whole raison d’etre is undermined.
Contact us to to explore our media and crisis training.