Issues Management: The Crystal Ball

By Craig Miyamoto, APR, Fellow PRSA

Exactly what is "issues management"? Itís a three-parter:

  1. Identifying and defining issues (social, financial, cultural or otherwise) that will affect your organization and the way it will operate in the future.
  2. Creating and installing formal procedures to address the issues before they wreak havoc on your organization.
  3. Monitoring and modifying the procedures to ensure outcomes that are to your best advantage.

Letís define it by example:

If you know an earthquake will hit next week, and if you initiate the proper precautions, youíre practicing disaster management. If you have a strong suspicion that computer stocks are going to take a dive and you position yourself advantageously, youíre practicing investment management.

If you know your state legislature is on verge of introducing -- and eventually enacting -- legislation that will affect the way your organization operates, and if you take steps to solve these problems before the legislation becomes law, youíre practicing issues management.

Issues management is essential to business survival, and is concerned with what public relations counselor Larry Newman of the Newman Partnership calls "alternative futures." Issues management identifies future trends. ("Trends" are series of events that can be estimated and measured over time. An "event" is a single, confirmable occurrence.)

Forecasting. Thatís what issues management is all about. Itís identifying the problems and concerns that will affect your organization in the future, and determining what steps you will take to lessen the impact that they have on your organization. Public relationsí role as strategic counsel positions the profession well in the issues management discipline.

Good issues management programs identify early those critical issues that will affect your organization measurably. They also try to influence the issues so that they donít become major problems.

The Five Stages

Issues progress through five phases. I liken them to the process of boiling water.

Phase One: You fill a pot with water. Itís there, but nothingís happening yet. Itís just a pot of water. But somethingís about to happen. You know it, everybody else knows it. Every issue begins as a potential issue. There is awareness, but nothingís underway . . . yet. The public feels that somethingís up, but isnít quite sure what it is. Issues analyst Max Meng calls this the "Potential Issue" stage.

Phase Two: You put the pot on the burner and turn the stove on. Somethingís going to happen soon and you can sense the water heating up. People begin talking about the issue and may start to form opinions. You can stop it at this point by influencing the issue (turn the burner off). Meng calls this the "Emerging Issue" stage.

Phase Three: Bubbles form on the bottom and climb up the sides of the pot. The surface of the water begins churning. The water is heating up at a furious rate, and the action increases in intensity. The issueís full impact can now be forecast. You know how much it is -- or isnít -- going to affect your organization. Meng calls this the "Current Issue" stage.

Phase Four: The water in the pot is boiling madly. Itís out of control. Thereís no way you can stop the boiling without drastic action (even plunging the pot into a pan of ice cubes wonít work quickly enough). The issue has reached a crisis stage and cannot be easily managed. You had better be prepared to deal with it, because you will inevitably experience the full consequences of the issue. Meng calls this the "Crisis Issue" stage.

Phase Five: You turn the heat off. Having done its job, the water cools, but continues to simmer just below the boiling point. Just like the water, the issue may run its course. But itís always there. It may become an integral part of our operations or society. It may be accepted by all. On the other hand, it may re-emerge if conditions are right. You need to recognize this, and remain prepared to deal with it anytime in the future. Meng calls this the "Dormant Issue" stage.

What Is Your Role?

What is required of successful and effective issues managers? How can you help your organization?

First, be prepared, and position yourself to recognize significant trends. You must listen, read and think. Read The Futurist, published by the World Future Society. Read trade and business journals. Listen to business leaders. Listen to economists and futurists. Think about how you can meet and address the challenges of tomorrow.

Be on a constant lookout for trends. Learn to differentiate long-term trends from short-term fads. Brainstorm with your colleagues. Look for both short- and long-term solutions to problems. Anticipate the future and prepare for eventualities.

Do a formal analysis of the situation. Prepare focus statements that describe your thoughts. Estimate the psychological, sociological and financial effects of the anticipated changes. Identify the people and organizations who will be affected by the issue, and set your priorities accordingly

Determine your organizationís position and make an action recommendation to management, based on your best information. Remember that the recommendation(s) must benefit (probably in this order) your organization, its stakeholders and the public good.

Study, identify and create a data base of specific publics and thought-leaders who will support you. Look long and hard for decision-makers and likely supporters. Determine which groups are most amenable to targeted communication. And donít forget to identify and list likely detractors; youíll want to know who they are, and where their "hot buttons" are.

All effective public relations is behavioral. You are trying to elicit a specific and measurable action from your target publics. It is therefore incumbent upon you not to forget to determine what do you want your audiences to do. What specific action do you want them to take? How can they express -- through individual or group action -- their support for you? This is key.

Opportunities are presented every hour of every day. The successful issues managers are those who have the ability to step outside of the accepted paradigms, who can forecast trends, who can determine what effect(s) the trends will have on their organization, and who can change the organizationís practices to take advantage of the impending changes.

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