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What is Issues Management in Public Relations?

One definition of issues management in public relations is defined as:

“The monitoring or scanning of the organisational environment in order to identify issues and trends, adapt to changes, and/or to decide on managerial or communicative actions aimed at creating mutual understanding with relevant stakeholders.” Corporate Communication Research.

In other words, issues management is a bridge between an organisation and its stakeholders.

Across any business, there are always problems that must be analysed and resolved. Some are easy to deal with. While other issues may have a substantial impact (both good and bad) on customers, employees, partners, suppliers and investors.

Along with managing and resolving the actual problems, management of the issues need to be communicated. Using public relations is an effective way of handling the management of these issues as part of an overall PR issues management plan. And, of course, it can stop any issue becoming a full-blown PR crisis too.

How does issues management differ from crisis management?

Simply put, issues management is proactive; crisis management is reactive.

From a public relations and communications approach, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with as crisis management and issues management are different animals and, consequently, they are dealt with in different ways.

Issues management

The key markers of issues management include:

  • Time to assess the situation and get ahead of it
  • Opportunity to explore all possibilities and make an informed decision
  • Taking the most cost-effective plan of action
  • Managed during normal office hours so it’s business as usual
  • Can extend for months or years
  • No death, illness or injury
  • Someone at departmental level (rather than board level) is authorised to sign off the response.

Crisis management

The key markers of crisis management include:

  • Need to make a decision on the spot without knowing all the facts
  • Fewer options available to take and they decrease as the crisis continues
  • Costs could be high
  • Daily crisis management activity could overwhelm the business
  • A crisis will eventually end, but financial and reputational impacts last
  • Can include injury, illness or death
  • Requires the input of an organisation’s leader such as the CEO
  • Will involve numerous stakeholders including customers, team members and suppliers.

Most businesses will recognise a PR crisis as it’s happening, from product recalls and social media missteps to major accidents and disasters and will – hopefully – have some kind of plan to manage the crisis effectively.

But a PR crisis can very often be averted, if an issues management plan is in place and potential issues are identified earlier in the cycle. And that’s an area for a PR professional.

The role of public relations in Issues Management

The area of issues management is a natural fit for the public relations consultant or PR team, as they have extensive knowledge of the organisation, the industry and the environment, and are highly organised people with a high risk/opportunity awareness. Issues management also requires a certain set of skills commonly found among PR practitioners:

  • Strategic communication and planning skills, as well as listening and observation skills.
  • Strong research, data gathering and analytical skills.
  • Relationship management skills, both inside and outside the organisation, including internal stakeholders e.g. employees, and external stakeholders e.g. suppliers, investors and customers.
  • Hands-on crisis management experience.

Public relations can play a vital role in the development of successful issues management outcomes, which benefit both the organisation and its stakeholders.

Issues Management Approach: The Six Key Steps

When issues arise – and they always do – organisations need to handle the situation carefully, if they want to minimise the negative effect it has on their business. Having a formal process in place for issues management means problems are identified and resolved quickly without becoming a PR crisis.

The PR issues management process has six key steps: identify potential issues; set priorities; establish a position on the issues; develop the response; take action; and monitor the issue.

1. Identify issues and trends

Issues management begins with identifying potential issues and how they can impact the organisation. If an issue evades detection then nothing can or will be done about it, until it reaches crisis point.

The role of the PR in issues management is to have their finger on the pulse. And that means scanning the external environment for developing trends and issues, which are of interest to the business. This can be anything from chatter on social media to changes in legislation. PRs need to look inside the business too, such as business strategies, operations and behaviours. Is there a threat to the IT systems? What are the consequences of a HR breach? Or an employee sharing company information on social media?

2. Set priorities

The impact of the issues should be evaluated into high, medium and low, and priorities set. What issue matters most to the organisation? What issue could have the most detrimental effect if allowed to escalate?

Organisations should concentrate on those issues critical to their strategic objectives and where the organisation’s input and management will make the most difference.

3. Establish a position on the issue

What needs to be done? What steps must be taken first? And how will the issue be managed and communicated? There may be several ways an issue can be tackled. PR practitioners managing the process will need to look at costs involved for each option, as well as the scope and timings. It may be that several courses of action are taken in parallel. Or one clear plan of action is developed. Either way, key messages need to be drawn up, so messaging is consistent.

4. Develop a response

A plan is then prepared for how to respond to the problem, including possible scenarios and the appropriate message for each. What information is shared about the problem needs to be decided upon and how the issue will be presented to the public and media. A list of authorised people who can talk on the matter also needs drawing up, as well as a step-by-step guide to communicating the issue internally.

5. Take action

The plan is put into action and messaging that has been agreed is communicated via internal networks and external channels, including the media.

6. Monitor the issue

Lastly, check how successful the actions have been, look at the ongoing response to the issue, and decide if any changes need to be made to the plan.

Ask the questions:

  • Has our brand and reputation been affected, and how?
  • What kind of comments and feedback are we getting from customers and employees?
  • Have we taken all the necessary steps to resolve the issue?
  • Has media coverage been positive, neutral or negative?

How PRs identify the issues

Issues are identified by PRs who actively monitor and assess trends and developments in their client’s industry.

The key to successful issues management is identifying these issues early in the cycle, along with the potential stakeholders involved or affected.

So what is an issue?

An issue is a trend or condition that may significantly affect an organisation’s operations over the period of its business plan. These could be changing attitudes and behaviours, they could be related to technology trends, lack of resources, or changes in legislation, all of which have a political, social and economic effect.

Early evaluation of the nature and direction of these trends is key to successful PR issues management. Issues may present a threat. Or they may present an opportunity. The skill of the public relations professional is to evaluate the issue to understand which one it is.

Types of issues

Issues are commonly described as having a five-stage lifecycle:

  • Early
  • Emerging
  • Current
  • Crisis
  • Dormant.

By the time an issue has worked its way through the first three stages and reached crisis point, it is much less manageable and attracts way more attention. For PRs, successful issues management is working within the first three stages.

What external groups cause the issues?

Any issues facing organisations are due to:

  • Government, bureaucrats and elected officials who, unsurprisingly, are instigators of most issues, as they’re most likely to be responsible for changes in legislation and policies.
  • Pressure groups that focus on a single issue (e.g. the environment) and capture media attention are likely to cause issues.
  • The general public, although to a much lesser degree than the two above.
  • And the news media. The media doesn’t create or formulate issues, but it does draw attention to them and shape popular opinion. It can very quickly build pressure around an issue (and equally, drop an issue). PR professionals need to constantly evaluate and monitor how an issue is playing out.

Monitoring the issues

One way to do this is by monitoring the media and looking at specific areas such as economic (e.g. how will an imminent recession in the country where the client sources goods affect prices?) regulatory (e.g. how will legislation in two years’ time affect how the business operates?) or social trends (e.g. how will growing environmental concerns affect how we travel and consequently, the travel industry?).

Traditional media is still seen as a prestigious source. But it’s social media that’s been the game-changer as its more immediate and has removed any guesswork around stakeholder sentiment. Social media has made it easier for PRs to research and identify issues, monitor what’s said, work through a solution, then manage the issues more effectively and more consistently.

Issues Management Case Studies

Issues Management Case Studies

It’s easy to see how an organisation has responded to a crisis, during and after the event. As we’re aware, some organisations handle it better than others.

But it’s harder to analyse issues management case studies, as process documents and plans are, by their very nature, internal documents and not for public consumption.

But back in 2016, a whistle-blower at Coca-Cola leaked a series of documents relating to Coca-Cola’s approach to potential policy changes e.g. more tax on soda, and their issues management process to deal with that. The plan, developed by a senior manager at Coca-Cola responsible for EU government relations, categorises its priorities into main areas called ‘Fight Back’, ‘Prepare’, or ‘Monitor’ based on the policy’s impact on Coca-Cola’s sales and the likelihood of the policy passing.

Interestingly, Coca-Cola’s PR team only prioritised issues which were negative from the organisation’s perspective and didn’t actively push any positive outcomes.

Whatever the view on Coca-Cola’s approach, the leaked documents demonstrate how seriously the company takes the issues management process.

Why having an issues management process is vital

As a PR, issues management is about looking for emerging issues that can affect the client’s organisation. But it’s also about building long-term, trusting relationships with stakeholders such as employees, customers and investors, as well as external public bodies, both at a government and grass roots level.

Communication is a key factor in the issues management process, which is why public relations practitioners play such a key role. When communications around issues are clear, honest and open, a mutual understanding can be fostered.

When a well-thought-out issues management strategic PR plan is in place and an organisation has the capabilities and commitment to support it, the organisation is in a good position to adapt to any issues – and opportunities – as they present themselves.

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