In today’s rapidly changing political landscape, issues management may be more important than ever before. I recently attended a workshop hosted by the Public Affairs Council that reinforced the increasing relevance and value for organizations to be prepared for issues-related threats and opportunities.
Before delving into key learnings from the workshop, let’s define the term “issue.” How each organization defines an issue is often unique, so it’s critical to align internally on the definition and infrastructure through which to respond to ensure a consistent approach. When referred to here, an issue, as defined one workshop panelist, is a “trend, condition or change in process or policy, ether internally or externally generated, that may evolve into a threat or opportunity that could impact [company] operations and or reputation.” Issues of this nature have the potential to drive reputation change – both positive and negative – for organizations of all sizes, making them fundamental to any serious communications strategy.
The following tips are designed to help your organization navigate and effectively manage any issues-related development:
Establish a standard procedure for managing issues across your organization.
When a new issue arises, the last thing you want to do is get bogged down in process. Having an established framework in place to effectively and efficiently analyze each situation and determine the appropriate response takes the guesswork out of the immediate next step and allows you to focus on strategy. For many, this process often coalesces around six main steps: monitor, identify risks/rewards to the business, assess and prioritize risks/rewards, determine whether to engage passively or actively (if at all), implement the action, and evaluate the results. Whatever your process, it should be replicable, easy to manage and share, and reflect the unique communications preferences of your organization’s leaders.
But be flexible in tight-turn situations.
Anyone who works in issues management knows that it can quickly turn into a crisis scenario where weeks or even days of lead time to map out the landscape and prepare a response is a luxury. When an issue you’re tracking turns into a crisis requiring rapid response, consider how to truncate your established framework to gather information, deliver necessary information to stakeholders and achieve results on an accelerated timeline. For example, instead of conducting a comprehensive media audit, consider scheduling a quick phone call with your trade association to gather fast intel (media or otherwise) on the situation and how peer organizations are responding.
Do your homework before elevating the issue internally.
A noteworthy takeaway from the PAC workshop is to get smart on an issue before bringing it to the attention of your company’s decision makers. With free online newsletters, podcasts and blogs covering just about every subject imaginable, there’s no shortage of tools to help you get quickly up to speed on an issue. Yet, people continue to be one of the most effective – but underutilized – resources in issues education. If, for example, your company deals with food, consider reaching out to (or building relationships with) your counterparts at customer organizations (e.g., grocery manufacturers) to get intel on how they’re responding to food-related issues. This can take time – and you’ll want to be careful how and when to tap into your relationship capital – but it can mean the difference between an apprehensive and ironclad recommendation when escalated up the chain.
Tailor your strategy to the market and severity of the issue.
As a global consultancy, Ketchum works with clients facing issues around the world. Being culturally aware of the market you’re operating in is critical – especially when an issue is deemed a high priority for your business. In some cultures, for instance, using a local public affairs firm to represent your company in government meetings is standard and appropriate; in others, it’s impersonal and ill-advised. Do your research on local customs and consider when it’s best for your company to be present in the room.
Each organization’s approach to issues management should be customized to meet its unique needs, but there are a few rules that can be universally applied: have a process, yet stay nimble; do your homework; and always be clear and concise when communicating what the issue is, why it matters to the business, and how to move forward.