Building an Issues Management System

By Tucker, Kerry; Trumpfheller, Bill | Public Relations Journal, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Building an Issues Management System


Tucker, Kerry, Trumpfheller, Bill, Public Relations Journal


Most of us handle issues instinctively, almost accidentally. Or, we wait until they become crises. This issues-driven public relations process is not about crisis. It is summarized by one word: anticipation.

Issues-driven public relations is analogous to establishing a radar system to help management anticipate and prepare for issues--any condition or pressure that if continued will significantly impact the mission of an organization. Trends or events merit the same attention.

The ideal is to get involved with an issue early, before others affected have staked out a position; before the topic becomes fodder for discussion by legislators and regulators. Early involvement provides practitioners with the opportunity to help shape how an issue develops. Consequently, the odds that an issue will develop in a mutually beneficial way are significantly enhanced.

In fact, the earlier an organization gets involved in analyzing and handling an issue, the more plentiful the options are for:

* accelerating the development of issues presenting opportunities to the organization;

* redirecting likely threats to more mutually beneficial ground and/or;

* making recommendations for internal adjustments to adapt to a changing world.

The dairy industry, for example, identified an emerging concern in health circles about iodine in the food supply. Dairy foods were targeted as a main culprit. University research was commissioned to determine how much iodine was actually in milk and how it got there. A few months later, the industry discovered a major medical organization was preparing a position paper on the issue with plans for publication in its prestigious journal. Iodine, an additive to livestock feed, was removed and researchers were sent back into the field. Findings showing 50% less iodine in dairy foods were shared with the medical association. The association did not publish a position on the issue.

A five-step plan

If you're ready to set up an issue management system for your organization, follow this five-step process:

1) Anticipate issues and establish priorities: The first step in anticipating issues can take many forms, from the most basic set of assumptions to the most elaborate issue anticipation system.

Internal cross-departmental task forces can be organized to capitalize on specialty areas of expertise and to help track periodicals, media, meetings and networks of opinion leaders. Quarterly meetings allow participants to review priorities, discuss emerging issues, and draw conclusions about the direction these issues are taking.

If a formal system isn't in the cards, identifying issues can be as simple as holding brainstorming sessions covering assumptions about issues. Look at issues in terms of forecasts about economics, social trends, the government and political arena, technology and the competition. Ask these questions:

* What changes do we project in each category in the next three to five years?

* What trends are likely to affect the organization?

* What special events are likely to take place and have an impact on the organization?

Once key issues are identified, set priorities to determine how much time and resources will be allotted to dealing with each of them. An organization shouldn't try to take on more than three or four priority issues at a time. Priorities are typically determined by which issues are most likely to affect the mission of the organization, likely to occur in the next three to five years and likely to be successful.

2) Analyze issues: Once priorities are set, develop a formal situational analysis or issue brief. Prepare a brief focus statement describing the potential threat or opportunity. The statement should paint a picture of how the issue may unfold if the organization takes no action. Follow this with an assessment of stakeholders likely to be affected: their perceptions, potential positions on the issue and their behavioral inclinations. …

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