Issues management: the art of anticipation

Issues management is a phrase that is bandied around frequently by strategic communications professionals, but what does it actually mean and how is it done?

The US-based Institute for Public Relations (IPR) sees it like this:

Issues management is an anticipatory, strategic management process that helps organisations detect and respond appropriately to emerging trends or changes in the socio-political environment.

Basically, it’s about finding an effective way to anticipate or respond to an emerging or snowballing issue. In many cases this means bringing balance and clarity to the debate, in others it is correcting misinformation and creating a positive impression in the response.

Anticipation is an integral part of issues management practice. At the basic level this means effective media monitoring across traditional and social media (free websites such as Social Mention mean the latter does not have to be massively time consuming and expensive).

Social media is now used by all types of organisations to gauge community sentiment and to identify and manage an issue, preferably before it develops. It’s interesting to note that failure to manage issues in the social media space is often only recognised once it reaches traditional media as a ‘social media storm’.

More strategic responses involve paid research or networking behind the scenes and launching a proactive campaign of paid or unpaid media.

In addition to this, there is one element of anticipation that is sometimes overlooked: recognising the value of internal relationships and the associated ability to challenge business decisions.

To unpick that slightly more: communications professionals need to network and influence across all levels of an organisation so they can ‘teach’ their colleagues to recognise an issue which is likely to impact on an organisation’s reputation.

Once that issue has been identified, the communications professional must back their instinct and in some cases challenge the business decision that has created the issue. For example, a property development professional may want to maximise returns by building on open space used by a community as ‘unofficial’ parkland. The communications professional recognises this will be an issue for the community that may escalate – threatening the success of the whole project. The communications professional works with the property development professional to retain part of the space as a community garden and play area while utilising the remaining space to achieve the development goal. This is a win for the community and helps to manage the issue before it becomes one.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that the best way to manage an issue is to anticipate it first and then to act to stop it developing in the first place.

For assistance with issues management, contact Chris O’Brien or Alison Scown at 02 9387 2600