“Think of an issue as a gap between your actions and stakeholder expectations. Issue management is the process used to close that gap.”
—Teresa Yancey Crane, founder, Issue Management Council
As a communicator, the definition of issue management above describes what you do every day in your profession, right? Then why is issue management a mindset—and a process—that has yet to be embedded in every communicator’s repertoire? Does the term need to be in a job description or job title to validate the responsibility that communicators have in leading organizations in handling tough scenarios with stakeholders? Perhaps the answers to these questions lie in understanding what issue management really is.
“The number one topic being debated in C-suites and boardrooms today is how to manage risk and leverage opportunities,” says Vada Manager, senior VP at APCO Worldwide. “Issue management is one of the few organizational disciplines whose very nature is the anticipation, mitigation or management of such risk.”
So let’s go with what Manager has described and take a look at the process involved in handling issue management.
The issue management process allows PR to interact with internal and external stakeholders to ensure messages get through without a lot of distraction. According to Elizabeth Dougall, formerly a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now a consultant at Rowland PR in Australia, issues have a life cycle of five stages: early, emerging, current, crisis and dormant. As the issue moves through the first four stages, it attracts more attention and becomes less manageable from the organization’s point of view. So it’s up to communicators, working closely with those internal and external stakeholders, to formulate messaging and actions that can not only prevent a potential issue from boiling over, but also promote improved teamwork, passionate advocates, strong market entry and socially responsible positioning.
“Issue management is sensing and foreseeing what is about to happen and being prepared to address issues with effective solutions,” says John Clemons, president of Clemons Communication and formerly corporate director of community relations at Raytheon. Issues management requires a strategic focus on listening, observation, research, data gathering and analysis, and relationship management both inside and outside of an organization. Public relations, adds Clemons, can play a big role in the development of successful outcomes and results that benefit both organizations and their stakeholders.
Some communicators view issue management is a discipline reserved for those working in large corporations, or as a tactic to be handled by a consultancy. That’s simply not the case. As most of my career has been spent in nonprofits and associations, I’ve had my share of handling issue management scenarios with senior management and executive board leadership.
Here’s one example: When I worked at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the issue in 2007-2008 was making over a well-respected scholarship organization while retaining the nearly 40-year-old, iconic tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Some of our desired outcomes included bringing a singular brand identity to 25 UNCF area offices, creating a new identity that UNCF member colleges and universities would embrace and attracting new and younger supporters.
UNCF partnered with Landor Associates, an issues and branding agency. Landor and its sister agency Y&R New York queried current and prospective donors, executive board members, UNCF member presidents and staff to gauge their feelings about the existing UNCF image.
Ultimately, UNCF was able to launch a successful rebranding effort in 2008 that bolstered its standing, thanks in large part to an issue management approach based on research and analysis. The process resulted in UNCF strengthening its relationship with long-standing supporters and securing new sponsors.
This rigorous focus allows for increased influence of communications in the business decision-making process. Manager, who was senior director of global issues management for Nike from 1997-2009, tackled a number of issues at the iconic sporting goods manufacturing company, including labor practices/global sourcing procedures; marketing communication support for subsidiaries; and crisis management for athletes.
For a rollout of a new Nike product, Manager says having a seat at the business table allowed his issues management team to make a major contribution to the launch.
“After months of working as an equal partner with key internal groups, there wasn’t anything that caught us by surprise,” says Manager. “We were able to better control our business destiny by the time the first products were seen by consumers and stock analysts were made aware of the growth opportunity. Our involvement demonstrated the value of issue management in a transformative business environment.”
SKILLS ARE AN ISSUE
So what training is required to bring issue management into your portfolio of core communications skills?
First, Clemons and Manager agree that sharpening essential business and communications skills is the key to successful oversight of issue management. Here is a list of skills from Clemons to work on to become a strong issue manager:
• Organizational development and strategic communications planning
• Strong analytical skills
• Corporate citizenship experience
• Hands-on crisis management experience
According to Manager, highly organized, “process-steward” individuals with a risk/opportunity orientation are the common attributes seen among issue practitioners, whose backgrounds range from law and journalism to business strategic planning.
With its ability to tap the minds of targeted audiences, social media shows potential in helping communicators both research and work through issue solutions. “Issue management has been enhanced by social media—eliminating certain guesswork on stakeholder sentiments,” says Manager.
Yet Clemons offers a caveat: “At the moment communicators appear to be singularly focused on social media because it is immediate,” he says. “But issue management is a more in-depth and far-reaching approach to problem solving.”
To learn more about these approaches, check out the Issue Management Council (www.issuemanagement.org) and Public Affairs Council (www.pac.org) Web sites.
Approaches aside, think of issue management as a bridge between your organization and its stakeholders. It’s a span that’s well worth crossing. PRN
This article was written by Brenda C. Siler, owner-director of Best Communication Strategies and a member of the PR News Advisory Board. She can be reached at [email protected].