When trends evolve into issues, organisations can find themselves in desperate need of direction with very little time to position themselves. Under this pressure of time, the organisation’s options are limited at best and can even lead to forced decision-making. Evidently, it is the responsibility of senior management to prevent that from happening.
Mastering the art of issue management will enable companies to position themselves on the board carefully or even take themselves off the board entirely. Therefore, issue management is a crucial part of the company’s strategy.
Issue management stands for anticipating and reacting to (emerging) changes and trends within the socio-politic environment of a company or a person. When dissecting this sentence, you will find that there are two words that hold a deeper meaning:
- Anticipating which stands for the prediction and assessment of trends with great accuracy. It also includes the assessment of the expected impact these trends will have on the perceptions of the public and important stakeholders.
- Reacting which stands for the process that follows, in which an organisation decides how to act upon those trends to preserve and strengthen their relations and corporate image and then puts a plan into action.
Issue management therein differs from crisis management. Crisis management is applied when issues aren’t dealt with adequately and therefore, internal and external internal stakeholders of an organisation decide to confront an organisation or person behind closed doors, but more often publicly, with a potentially detrimental effect.
An introduction to issue management
Issue management is a specialism often found under the wing of CCO’s, probably because of the already existing relation between communications and influencing the public opinion, which also plays a prominent role in the process of managing issues effectively. But might also be related to the important role communications generally has within processes of issue management. CCO’s are by definition, strongly connected to the commercial, political, social, cultural and technical environment, due to the origins of their work. That being said, issue management, as many other communicational tasks, transcends the borders of communications. Meaning that collaboration with other departments is an absolute precondition if the organisation wants communication or PR to address issues effectively.
On a strategical level, interest in and attention to issue management are growing. That growing interest is due to several factors of which we will name a few: For one, the internet is a highly populated and fast-pasted network wherein groups can find each other and interact with both great ease and speed. As a result, the internet has become a catalyst of issues and as a result, issue management has become much more complex since its arrival. Secondly, CEO’s stopped working reactively (like in the old days) but acknowledge the value of developmental change and being market leaders (from a competitive perspective). And thirdly, in the last decades, models have been developed that make painfully clear, how much money is lost because of bad issue management. This has all increased awareness amongst CEO’s.
Issue management is not solely about managing news streams, lobbying within politics or framing issues; managing issues often lead to operational, tactical and strategical change within organisations. Issue managers are faced with the challenging task of researching and monitoring trends and analysing in what way those trends could affect the company (both positively and negatively).
Well known examples of issue management are: The transition from plastic to biodegradables and paper due to the social responsibility trend (Mc Donalds), appointing women to boardroom positions because of the growing resistance against ‘ old boys’ networks’ and pro-equality (Akzo Nobel).
Several strategies for handling issues are discussed within this article. The goal is not to hand you solutions on a silver platter but rather to guide you on your way.
It goes without saying that managing issues start by assessing if a trend is an issue at all. Not every trend will become an issue per se. Trends or changes that do require your attention, are the ones that lead to (or have already led to) a gap between operational management, the company’s vision and the expectations of the organisations against the vision of stakeholders and the public opinion.
In the widest sense of the term, trends are analysed by creating detailed SWOT and DESTEP analysis, but also by continuously scanning the environment. Per issue an assessment needs to be made of:
- The intensity of an issue within the public domain;
- The likeability that a trend will continue to evolve and what that means in terms of forming opinions within the public domain (only within the first, second and third phase of an issue’s lifecycle)
- The chances political and legal actions will follow;
- Which position the company will take within the landscape;
- Which influence the company has on the matter;
- If the companies’ stakeholders are actively involved and;
- If the issue might lead to mobilisation against the organisation by interest groups.
Subsequently, issue managers need to assess in which degree these issues could impact operations (creating scenario’s). This assessment goes hand in hand with determining in which stage an issue is:
- Emerging phase: the rise of a trend
- Debate: opinion-forming process
- Codification: meaning-creation process
- Enforcement: reaction in action
- Dormant: solved issue
Creating a position-importance matrix could prove to be very helpful during this process. The matrix offers more insight into the playing field of each issue and thereby, helps prioritise activities. The matrix displays the positions different stakeholders and interest groups hold on corresponding issues and ranks them by importance. Both are measured on a from one to ten scale:
Based upon all the data collected, organisations can decide the position they hold per issue and which objectives they will strive for.
Next, an action plan per phase and stakeholder group -or interest group- is constructed, in line with the overarching objective and communication strategy of the company. It goes without saying that prevention is always better than a cure, meaning that an organisation always has the best odds when they respond to an issue adequately and in a timely matter (during the emergence phase or during the debate phase). The phase an issue is in has a significant impact on the instruments at the companies’ disposal. The further progressed an issue is within its cycle, the fewer options remain.
The reaction strategy
In the end, it will all come down to how you respond as a company. There are three general strategies that companies can use:
A buffering strategy
The buffering strategy is a defensive one, focused on decelerating the development of an issue. If a company chooses this strategy, it is generally because they are dedicated to the as-is situation (business as usual). This means that the organisation chooses to pursue the previously adapted course of action and tries to keep the opinions of the public and stakeholders a bay. The organisation then either chooses to evade the discussions in an attempt to reject any form of ownership or endorses current operations actively.
A bridging strategy
This strategy is currently preferred by most managers because it holds fewer risks than the Buffering strategy. A bridging strategy stands for an organisation that is open to change and acknowledges that they have a corporate responsibility regarding the issue at hand.
This strategy corresponds with the current adaptive climate whereby organisations adapt operations to meet the expectations of stakeholders and audiences. In these cases, companies engage in dialogues to see how expectations and trends can be reflected in the organisation’s strategy and operations in order to strengthen or protect their market share and/or image.
An advocacy strategy
The advocacy strategy is a lot less conventional and less manageable than the prior strategy. Nonetheless, this strategy is often successfully (and unsuccessfully) deployed. Using this strategy, the objective is to influence the opinions and expectations of key influencers and the general public by campaigning and lobbying. The ultimate goal is to change the prevalent opinion to one in line with the current strategy and operations and thus legitimate the position of the company.
A final thought
Which strategy is best suited for an issue, depends on many different factors. For instance, a late signalling of issues will exclude the possibility of using the advocacy strategy because opinions are already formed and ratified. Secondly, your course of action also depends on the felt intensity of an issue: while small issues (when desired), can be ignored, big issues that cause heated discussions and involve stakeholders simply cannot be ignored without causing damage. Thirdly, the game plan is always affected by the objectives a company sets.
The best advice we can give you up front is that it is wise to ensure your basis for issue management is solid. This is safeguarded by clear procedures. Decide and communicate who has what responsibility, which disciplines need to be consulted when issues arise, how you monitor the environment, how employees and stakeholders can address issues, which objectives issue managers have, how you evaluate courses of actions and how each phase needs to be undergone (protocol per phase and intensity of an issue)