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There are many ways in which reputation-threatening and stakeholder relationship-threatening issues can be identified. Early identification and strategic action are key to dealing with issues successfully. So having tools in place which make it easy and intuitive for a public relations professional to identify issues are a boon for reputation protection and enhancement.

Barbeque as PR issues management tool

It is true the profoundly important role issues management plays in the strategic communication portfolio sometimes seems a little out of reach to all PR practitioners. Yes, thoughtful strategic responses are required in issues management which may be the domain of those with a few years experience and wisdom under the belt.

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But all PR pros can be involved in the process from the very beginning of their career through being aware of issues management identification processes.

Market research

Evidence-based data delivered through market research will always provide the most scientifically reliable means of identifying issues and, very importantly, quantifying how widely spread the issue might be and, perhaps, even its impact.

Most research will not be done more than annually (if that), however, so this is a bigger picture type approach for most organisations. Undertaking market research also frequently manifests itself in large programs that can be somewhat unwieldy (especially including the sign off process in getting the questions and methodology approved).

Small market research programs and economy of scale

Solid, scientifically credible, evidence-based market research need not be cumbersome, however.

You can have any number of questions, starting from one, included in an ‘omnibus’ research program many reputable market research firms periodically carry out. An omnibus survey typically includes questions on a range of topics paid for by a range of organisations:

  • The sample can be statistically reliable and the methodology sound
  • You can repeatedly ask certain questions over an ongoing period of time at different junctures to help in picking up on issues of relevance to your organisation
  • The more questions you ask and the more frequently you do it the greater the economy of scale there will be for your investment

An omnibus approach provides an example of running a small market research program. It can deliver quantitative and/or qualitative research results. There is value in both.

A further option is running surveys/research through your own organisation using a platform like SurveyMonkey:

  • It’s best to have some sort of reasonable database you can email the survey to
  • It can piggyback on top of any proactive electronic direct mail (e.g. e-newsletter) marketing you may have
  • You can generate a pop-up or lightbox each time someone visits your website  prompting them to do the survey (probably annoying but loads of research points to the fact they, um, work!).

An incentivisation approach (e.g. a number of prizes) will help generate responses.

Some of the questions you ask can be overtly or subtly designed to pick up on emerging issues salient to you organisation’s reputation. It’s a cheap approach. It won’t be perceived externally as entirely credible or reliable because an organisation is running it itself and the methodology won’t be as excellent as it can get.

But the important outcome is it will greatly help in identifying issues you might want to invest more time, money and care into investigating. In essence, this is a terrific way to run an issues identification campaign more qual than quant in nature which you can take further if you feel the need.

Media monitoring

Would you agree there are three ways you can undertake media monitoring to identify salient issues to your organisation’s reputation?

  1. Formal media monitoring which you generally pay through the nose for and constantly wish you didn’t have to make the investment as the results are consistently inconsistent, don’t pick up on issues you wish it would and you spend an inordinate of time, ultimately, needlessly trawling through the results
  2. Informal , free media monitoring through sources like Google Alerts
  3. You and your colleagues’ checking media yourselves.

We’re in PR so you should obviously be undertaking at least options 2 and 3. Whether you undertake 1 depends on your budget and the nature of your organisation.

Of course, you can also refine the media monitoring brief to make your monitoring results as targeted and as useful as possible (e.g. do you really need mentions on certain topics from regional media, especially when most of it is sourced through AAP etc?).

Community and NGO meetings; protest marches

For some organisations local communities and NGOs will be stakeholders. They will often hold public meetings. Why not go along, listen in, identify any moans relevant to your organisation; follow up as necessary?

You can also attend any protests stakeholders arrange. Listen in.

Are you eavesdropping? Is this ethical? I have two answers to this.

Firstly, whatever! You are gaining information about your stakeholders and if they are bitching and moaning about you best to hear it directly through the horse’s mouth rather than mediated by the media and social media sources which may have their own axe to grind.

Secondly, as a public relations professional it is your job to truly understand what your organisation’s stakeholders think about the organisation. That way you can provide intelligence to your organisation on how it can adapt to meet stakeholder needs and/or communicate more effectively with them.

Listening at events

The point above goes to the very important attribute PR professionals need to have, that of listening. The same skill can be applied in an issues management identification approach at events which your organisation sponsors.

Whether it is a community, local council, school or other event, one of the most valuable outcomes of sponsorship is it allows you to interact with stakeholders. You get to converse with them. You have created a common ground. People will let their guards down. Free and frank dialogue is likely to occur.

Listen. Leverage. Learn.

Key stakeholder meetings

It is important for most organisations to have periodic meetings with local, state and/or federal politicians. Or industry association leaders. Or leaders of peer companies.

Often, this is undertaken informally as a courtesy. Whether formal or not, this should be a habitual program and in these meetings an effort should be taken to ask for views on your organisation and any issues relevant to it for the stakeholders concerned.

Best to ask, and know, early in the issue development process rather than do it after the fire has razed the surrounding ‘goodwill vegetation’ and there is only your ‘house of reputation’ (hopefully not a house of ill-repute) left to be put to the torch.

Are your employees listening as well as advocating?

Employees are your number one brand ambassadors. We know that. If they aren’t, there’s the first issue you need to address!

They are also an absolutely invaluable listening tool.

There is this well known cultural event enshrined within the Australian way of life. And in the USA, too, I believe. Maybe Argentina as well. Possibly it’s a meat and men thing. But don’t quote me on that.

It’s called a barbeque. And it works literally and through metaphorical application. I’ll leave that one with you.

This is where people gather in the outdoors and debate the merits and methodologies of cooking/burning meat. Other topics, however, are also discussed. When topics relevant to your organisation are discussed at barbeques, functions or other gatherings, it is your job to make sure you let employees know you want to hear about incipient issues from them:

  • Make it part of their induction
  • Remind them in an ongoing communication campaign (that isn’t rammed down their throats)
  • Recognise their assistance.

Regulated ‘forced’ stakeholder interaction

In the oil and gas industry, companies in Australia must submit environment plans to regulators as part of the process to explore for and produce resources. Through this process they must interact with a wide range of stakeholders, informing them of intended operations and asking them a range of questions.

This is an example of a legally mandated process which provides an obvious opportunity to further identify issues salient to an organisation, especially those which are emerging and have not yet had an opportunity to negatively impact on an organisation’s reputation.

What are stakeholders saying about your peer organisations?

In some cases, there may be publicly available data and/or analysis of your peer organisations:

  • It may be market research results
  • It may be documents like the environment plans noted above
  • It may be NGO or community comment based on information gathering they may have done (possibly unreliable and with ill-founded perceptions, but often it is the perception which causes reputational damage, not facts).

This is valuable information for your organisation because your peer has similar characteristics and stakeholders to you. You can pre-empt issues becoming relevant to you by proactively putting in place measures to mitigate reputational impact.

Issues management is a powerful strategic public relations activity

Issues management is the identification of issues which may impact on an organisation’s reputation, then either modifying aspects of the organisation which have caused the issue and/or undertaking strategic communication to minimise the impact of stakeholder dissatisfaction.

There are plenty who think a public relations professional has no place in interfering with the way an organisation undertakes its activities, including the nature of its products and services. This is bollocks.

There is no more important person in an organisation than the strategic communicator, the PR chief. This is because this person, if operating at the top of their game and/or being allowed to operate at the top of their game by organisational hierarchy, is actually Stakeholder Relationship Chief.

This is the person who can provide advice into what organisational activity and processes are likely to positively or negatively impact on stakeholder relations and what the organisation can/should do about it. This is not a simplistic activity. It takes solid, evidence-based data and it takes intuitive, qualitative intelligence to undertake the activity effectively.

An organisation which does not, then, consistently seek the counsel of its Stakeholder Relationship Chief, and of course take their advice, is not achieving its potential. More likely than not it either has, is currently, or will encounter stakeholder relations issues of massive significance and, hence, have its reputation negatively impacted on.

It’s true, some organisations seem to be quite happy – and even thrive? – living within turbulence, stress and problematic encounters – with a resulting poor reputation. But this is the minority. Bad reputation leads to less than desirable performance and outcomes. You do the math.

Has your organisation enshrined any of these issues identification approaches? What has been the impact of them being in place? Where have you gleaned the most useful information and insights? What other approaches exist to assist with issues identification I haven’t flagged? Come on, I haven’t mentioned social media monitoring – can someone add value on this element? Have you seen where issues identified by an organisation in their embryonic stages have simply been ignored – what were the results to reputation and stakeholder relationships?

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