Managing Issues Acts as Bridge to Strategic Planning

By Trucker, Kerry; Broom, Glen | Public Relations Journal, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Managing Issues Acts as Bridge to Strategic Planning


Trucker, Kerry, Broom, Glen, Public Relations Journal


Issues management was introduced 17 years ago as a new promise to enhance the role of public relations. For the most part, it hasn't happened. Empty promises? Has issues management run out of gas? What has kept the function from becoming the center-piece of public relations? Where does it fit in the drive to position public relations in a strategic counseling role?

These were among the questions discussed at Public Relations Colloquium 1992, sponsored by Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc., a San Diego-based public relations firm, San Diego State University and Northwestern University.

Colloquium panelists included Ray Ewing, APR, Kenilworth, IL, retired issues management director at Allstate Insurance Co. and former Northwestern University professor; Larry Kaagan, president of Kaagan Research Associates, New York City; Sharon Long, director of nutrition issues, Dairy Council of California, Sacramento; Professor John Mahon, Boston University School of Management and Dan Young, director of public policy at GTE Telephone Operations, Dallas.

From ad hoc to system

The term issues management was coined in 1976 by W. Howard Chase, Fellow, PRSA, a long-time public relations practitioner. He used the term as a strategy to help corporations take the offensive in anticipating and preparing for social change following the tumultuous '60s and early '70s.

"Howard did not invent issues management," said Ewing, who opened the colloquium with a historical perspective of the phenomenon. "From Ivy Lee's time to 1976, those of us counseling senior management had been doing issues management, but on an ad hoc, hit-or-miss basis, under various names. Howard moved us from an hoc practice to a system of foresight and planning. That's why we call him the founder of issues management."

Issues management was seen by Chase, Ewing and other public relations practitioners as a strategy to help corporations avoid significant sums of "clean-up" money and forestalling new salvos of government regulations over social issues. Many saw it as a strategy to expand the role of public relations beyond media relations and product publicity to a senior management problem-solving function critical to the survival of an organization.

Few have adopted process

After a review of the history of issues management, colloquium panelists concluded that few public relations practitioners have incorporated the process as part of their function. They also acknowledged that the profession has done little to develop it because:

* the risk of adopting issues management in tight financial times is greater because the connection to the bottom line is long-term at best and not well-understood;

* research has been helpful in building "what-if" scenarios but has not been quantifiable enough to consistently sell the process;

* communication is just one tool for issues management and there are issues requiring organizational change, not communication;

* issues management is not owned by public relations--practitioners come from a multitude of fields including public relations, public affairs, strategic planning, law and engineering;

* issues management is a high-level management position requiring mature judgment and depth of experience;

* nothing has been done to develop issues management as a public relations function and help practitioners move past traditional communication into broader strategy.

An unwritten boundary

"We've failed to advance the concept because we insist on viewing ourselves as professional communicators instead of management professionals experienced with communication and management principles," said Ewing, who wrote one of the first books on issues management (Managing the New Bottom Line: Issues Management for Senior Executives, Business One Irwin, Homewood, IL, 1987). "You would think that more veteran public relations people would naturally make this leap to issues management but they back off for some reason. …

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