A pragmatic approach to issue management

There is no question that one of the critical roles for anyone charged with overseeing a company's interaction with the outside world is issue management.

Whether you call it PR, corporate affairs or communications doesn't really matter.  The ability to scan the external environment and ensure your company isn't left flat-footed is critical.

Issue management has become a whole discipline in itself with passionate practitioners quite rightly arguing that it should not be a sole responsibility of the PR team – but instead needs to extend up, down and across the management chain.  I think that this is true, although in my experience many companies inevitably fall back on a thin veneer of issue management and a solid reliance on crisis management if an issue turns into a reputation damaging fiasco.

If you want to dig a bit deeper on this topic visit here for a post by the Issue Management Council setting out what, in their opinion, are the indicators of best practice issues management.  It is an excellent basis to understand the enormous potential of this function.

While I applaud the notion of best practice, I'd caution in-house PR practitioners to avoid the risk of shooting for the sky and falling flat on your face.  Best practice issue management requires significant understanding and commitment from the Executive table.  For corporate affairs operatives who want to begin the journey to a more professional approach, here are my tips:

  1. Make sure you genuinely understand your company's business.  You can only effectively anticipate issues likely to impact on your company if you understand the business.  So get out of the office and spend time at the front-line immersing yourself. Apart from anything else, you will win the respect of your management colleagues and be able to understand the conversations around the management table.
  2. If you haven’t already done so, put in place a basic issues scanning mechanism and once you are comfortable with its consistency and effectiveness, begin adding it to your monthly report.  This will illustrate proactivity, knowledge and means you will begin to introduce those above and around you to the notion of issues scanning.
  3. Consider adopting a simple issue management review tool as part of your regular review of brand and reputation performance or as part of your monthly PR report.  This might begin with you creating a list of the top issues impacting your company and asking your senior colleagues to rank them in terms of priority and impact. This list then becomes a handy tool to guide the work of you and your team in terms of understanding where you will devote your energy in engaging with the outside world.
  4. One great way to "sell" the notion of issue management to your senior colleagues is to express it in terms of risk management (which is to a large extent what issue management is.)
  5. Once the list is created, pick one issue and create an issue management plan to illustrate to your boss and the management team how a considered, thoughtful and planned approach can genuinely make a difference – as opposed to an approach relying solely on crisis management.
  6. Get feedback and assess the level of understanding and support, apply those lessons and persist.
  7. Be patient.  This can be the hardest part of the whole process and introducing a company to the notion of issue management can take time so don't expect too much too soon.  Persistence will pay off and as you have small wins, respect for you and the process you are advocating will increase and you will build momentum.

If you have questions or comments about anything here, please feel free to drop me a line.