Every organisation, regardless of its size or nature, faces an array of issues that have the potential to disrupt it. Although these issues will vary greatly, they are likely to share a lifecycle comprising five stages:
In simple terms, as the issue moves through the first four stages, it attracts more attention from internal and external stakeholders and becomes less manageable from the organisation’s point of view.
As the issue matures, the number of engaged stakeholders, publics and other influencers expands, positions on the issue become entrenched and the strategic choices available to the organisation shrink.
If, and when, the issue becomes a crisis, the only available responses are reactive and are at times imposed by external parties. This could include government agencies, suppliers, special interest groups and/or customers.
Not all issues reach the crisis stage and many crises are not the result of an underlying issue.
Currie approaches issues management in four steps – Prevent, Prepare, Respond and Recover. This month, we focus on the first two – those steps that best keep a lid on a potential crisis.
Prevention is better than a cure
Prevention is better than a cure. It turns out to be cheaper too. The aim of communications during the Prevent stage is to build trust and goodwill, and to protect and promote an organisation’s reputation.
Prevention is best achieved by:
1. Getting the house in order – this involves knowing the risks and who they affect, mapping emerging scenarios and setting up early-warning mechanisms; and
2. Managing expectations – this means determining an organisation’s position on an issue and making that clear to those people and institutions who have a stake in it.
Getting the ‘house in order’ begins with a deep and accurate understanding of the organisational risks and correlating communications issues. It is when you identify risks, set strategies to mitigate them and monitor them.
The earlier an organisation detects an issue, the more response choices – such as product modification, the introduction of conduct codes or anticipatory collaboration with interest groups – are available to decision-makers.
Managing expectations usually involves proactively engaging relevant stakeholders and employing educational messages to create fair and informed opinions about the organisation’s connection with an issue.
Positive perceptions and realistic expectations will soften the blow if an issue turns into a crisis.
Follow the scouts’ motto: Be prepared
Preparation is all about being ready; knowing who does what if monitoring detects an increase in probability of an issue emerging or a revised estimate of the impact and outrage which accompanies it.
1. Developing the strategy – this includes confirming resources, objectives and messages, as well as preparing guidelines or protocols for managing an issue; and
2. Rehearsing the scenarios – this involves capacity building for the various scenarios and comprises media coaching, training drills and crisis simulations.
Developing the strategy starts with assembling the right people (an issue management team) and arming them with credible information about the issue and guidelines for how to deal with it. Examples of these materials include a social media crisis manual Currie produced for Horticulture Australia and a set of issue management protocols we prepared for Meat & Livestock Australia’s Livestock Production Assurance program.
Knowledge and foresight are the foundations for an effective anticipatory and responsive strategy.
Scenario planning is highly-effective for stimulating strategic thinking by helping to provide issue management teams with maps of the alternate pathways along which issues may develop before and during a crisis.
Rehearsing the scenarios, usually by running crisis simulations involving the issue management team and, when appropriate stakeholders, is the best way to test communications planning for an issue.
When testing a client’s readiness for issue management Currie has used the Online War Room™, an online, secure and proprietary training tool that mimics an online and social media crisis scenario in real-time.
…And no two issues are equal
Finally, no two issues are equal and should not be treated as such. Determining which issues demand attention and, therefore, the allocation of resources demands detailed analysis. Although there are many ways to analyse issues, the two most critical dimensions of an issues are probability and impact.
In other words:
• How likely is the issue to affect the organisation?
• How much impact and outrage will the issue create?
Now that you’ve heard from us about issue management, we would love to hear from you.
What insights or tips would you like to share?