issue management

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.

Is the customer always right?

What’s the most common threat used in Australia?

I’m going to take a stab and guess the following: I’m going to the media!  Picture this: A call centre somewhere in Australia right now.  An angry customer, an exasperated employee and a letter to the local news outlet that’s lobbed like a hand grenade. 

The average Chief of Staff at most metro TV stations gets about half a dozen calls a week – sometimes a day – from a customer seeking revenge for a bad deal.

What happens next is telling.  Having sat in the Chief of Staff desk at a few newsrooms over the years I can tell you that most of the complaints get ignored.  Occasionally, though, the combination of a bank that’s just reported a massive profit and a single mother with three kids who are about to be made homeless is just too much to resist.  

For me the critical question raised by incidents like this is: How did this situation arise in the first place? Addressing this question is why successful companies need to have their customer service folk and their PR and Marketing professionals working hand in glove.  I should also include the customer insight folk in there as well.

These customer pain points are rich sources of learning.  What happened here? Why was the customer so unhappy?  Did they understand what their contract with the company entitled them to receive and were they clear on how much that would cost?  The customer is NOT always right – but you can learn from even the most unreasonable customers.  And, no, you won’t always be able to give the customers what they want – but if you just feel the fear, and don’t learn anything from these incidents, you are missing out on a big opportunity to grow your business and understand what it takes to attract new customers and keep the ones you’ve got.

Exploding a media myth

The myth about media relations is that by influencing journalists you can control the issue.

But targeting the media is a bit like treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

The key to issue management is building relationships with stakeholders.  This is even more the case in the world of Twitter and Facebook where opinions fly thick and fast and the media's influence, while still strong, has faded in the midst of the crowd.  Just take a look at what is occurring in the Middle East: While guns and bombs still dominate political debate,  well organised pressure groups are begin to show that- at least in some cases- the pen or mobile phone can be mightier than the sword. 

Here in suburban Australia it is the same.  Politicians and journalists are still powerful. On talkback radio and on the internet, however, an articulate pensioner from Balcatta can give the Canberra press gallery a run for their money any day.

If your issue management strategy is solely focussed on the media, you're fighting a losing battle. 

A sense of urgency

Standby for an overwhelming stereotype: There are two types of people in this world – the slow, steady considered types who follow the mantra that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The stitch in time saves nine types – who go by gut feel and seize the opportunity just in time.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. There are times when it is right to step back, take a deep breath and think carefully before acting. But equally so, there are times when you need to act.