Early Identification Aids Issues Management

By Meng, Max | Public Relations Journal, March 1992 | Go to article overview

Early Identification Aids Issues Management


Meng, Max, Public Relations Journal


In 1977, an issues analyst for Bank of America identified a potential issue described as "holds on deposits." This is a practice in which banks would refuse to credit deposits until checks cleared. However, the issue did not reach the crisis stage of its life cycle until 1982. During this time, the issue was discussed on NBC's Meet the Press and covered in the San Francisco Examiner, which prompted some 5,000 letters, all of which motivated U.S. House and Senate committees to hold hearings on such bank practices.

But since Bank of America had identified this issue six years earlier, the bank was able to show during the congressional hearings that it held only 0.03% of deposits. This early identification of the issue paid off on Feb. 23, 1982, when Senator Chris Dodd, D-Conn., praised Bank of America's policies and introduced a bill to regulate holdings based in part on the bank's plan.

This example illustrates the central premise of issues management, which distinguishes it from traditional public relations approaches. If an organization identifies an issue early, it will have a wider range of alternatives to choose from before committing itself to appropriate action. The odds are greater that the organization will be able to influence the issue and avoid formal constraints on its actions. (See box, page 23.)

Issues management is characterized as "proactionary" because the organization's ability to influence an issue decreases as the issue nears the crisis stage of its life cycle. There are two goals in this function:

1) Identify issues early that may have an effect upon the organization.

2) Influence those identified issues to prevent them from causing a major consequence to the organization.

These goals are intertwined. Remove the first and the concept of issues management is no different from that of crisis techniques used by public relations practitioners. Remove the second and there is no motivational need to seek the first.

There are many ways to scan and monitor the evolution of issues. The most widely used method is the scanning of trade publications, books, scholarly journals and the news media. This can be done through clipping services and online computerized data-bases. In addition, themes from popular entertainment such as movies, plays, novels and TV shows ought to be evaluated.

The illustration on page 23 shows that early issue identification deals with the potential stage, situation, emerging stage, and a portion of the current stage of an issue's evolution. It also illustrates the boundaries of issues management and shows its relationship to crisis management (the crisis stage).

Although this depiction gives some idea about what "issues management" is, it does not suggest just how far ahead one should scan for issues. Since issues in the potential stage are somewhat nebulous, it is unreasonable to set some time limitation, such as scanning only for issues that will affect the organization five years from now.

There is, however, one limitation. Every potential issue must demonstrate some measurable impact upon the organization, or it is of no concern. This distinguishes issues management from "futurism." In contrast, futurism or "futures research" has no defined boundaries. In futures research, assumptions are made to forecast what the future will or should look like. Futurism may deal with phenomena 50 years or more in the future.

Futures research may be a helpful resource in identifying long-range challenges and helping management focus on their implications. But when it comes to scanning for issues, the details and sometimes fast-paced changes of potential and emerging issues limit the contributions of futurists.

Analyze impact and urgency

Once an issue is analyzed, an organization can understand its ramifications and predict its potential impact. An issues analyst should determine whether each suspect issue is of serious concern to the organization. …

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