13 issues management early warning tools to help protect reputation

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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Public relations generating excellent qualitative market research

Qualitative market research is a public relations and marketing professional’s best friend. It provides evidence and insights which inform communication strategies. It identifies issues and content to be addressed or included. And because the generation of qual is also an iterative, exploratory process, when an excellent researcher is interacting with the interviewee, the information gained can become very profound and useful.

PR discovering insights through qual research

Whilst it is generally professional market researchers who undertake qual, public relations professionals themselves also have the capability to step up to the plate in a most effective manner. This is because the best PR professionals are excellent interviewers. They need to have this skill because they need to be very good writers and to be a very good writer you need to be a very good interviewer.

Another benefit of a PR professional undertaking qual is they are actually applying the market research findings within the strategy they are formulating. Even if they are not the PR pro applying the research findings, they are wearing a PR strategy hat, so will be constantly thinking how they can use the information and insights gained within a potential communication strategy.

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As the strategy formulation is probably the reason the research is being undertaken, the nature of the questioning will be driven by this awareness. Therefore the questions will go down paths which only a communication strategist will have in their mindset. It will enable a richer amount of information to be generated which will be of greater use to whoever is actually undertaking strategy formulation.

PR leader’s think like market researchers

A public relations professional will be neither excellent or an effective strategist, either, unless the qual research mentality is inherent within their approach.

This manifests itself in the most prosaic of ways – the need to always ask: why?

  • It is the PR leader’s task to be forensic in their examination of an organisation’s rationale for suggesting a specific approach to communication
  • It is their role to challenge accepted orthodoxies
  • It is their role to mine for insights, either to enrich, to reinforce or ascertain new and valuable insights to aid in an organisation achieving its objectives.

Empathy is critical to public relations

Public relations professionals need to be experts on empathy – understanding, and even predicting, the opinions, rationales and feelings of others before they even recognise them themselves.

This is because two-way symmetrical communication and its mixed-motive model have made it clear the only way for organisations to create meaningful, sustainable relationships with stakeholders is to understand them and bend at least somewhat to their wills. Public relations are the kings and queens of this mindset.

Empathy, it goes without saying, is fundamental to effective qual research. The interviewee needs to be put at ease, they need to feel they are being heard, they need to be asked questions which lead them to the heart of what is important to them (once again, without them even realising this is case much of the time).

Curiosity and intuition within public relations and market research

Other attributes any excellent PR pro will possess are curiosity and intuition.

Without possessing genuine curiosity in an issue and in people, the interviewer will not cut the mustard. Whether it is in PR or in qual market research. It will not enable the ‘humanity’ gene to kick in. The interviewer will remain an observer, rather than becoming a participant in the process of discovery. Without this trait he or she will not truly understand the person and where they are coming from.

A lateral manifestation of curiosity is intuition. This is interesting, because qual research is an obvious sister to the very useful quantitative research, this being the sister that is more clinical and the provider of hard statistics. Both are vastly valuable to the public relations and marketing professional.

Yet quant is more black and white, whereas qual takes into more of a grey area. An area where intuition has its place in helping to explore issues and points of view which are not entirely clear, nor do they have a necessarily clear or rational explanation. Intuition, therefore, can lead a skilled interviewer down a path with no immediately apparent return on investment, yet some startling insight or finding might prove the worth of this dialogic diversion.

Undertaking qual research during a communication program provides valuable feedback on how the program might be refined to help it achieve a greater degree of success.

Undertaking the qual after a program is complete helps an organisation prepare for next steps, especially through the identification of issues and content which can enrich future communication to generate more compelling content and achieve greater buy-in.

PR leading market research

PR strategy leaders will have, over the years, been exposed to and/or commissioned market research programs. A familiarity with market research processes helps educate the practitioner.

As they examine the methodology applied, as they review and refine the sort of questions which are asked, the topics which are addressed and the results of the research, they become increasingly educated and competent in the craft.

Unless they have been in such a market research leadership position, I don’t consider them educated to a sufficiently high level to actually implement a qual market research program personally.

They may still be very good interviewers, however – but this may be a factor to consider when commissioning a PR pro to undertake a qual market research program.

I should say none of this is to say market research professionals are not excellent at their qual research jobs. Most of the time they will definitely be better than PR professionals. Only a very few of the latter will be effective enough to match the market researchers’ skill sets and effectiveness.

But there are certainly benefits to considering certain PR pros in undertaking formal qual research tasks. It happens pretty frequently, though I’m the first to admit I’ve seen some PR pro versions of it I don’t rate highly.

Qualitative research obviously complements quantitative, with the former providing more profound intelligence on how a target audience, or those with an interest in an organisation, are thinking. Qual research, therefore, is of great value to the strategic approach organisations apply to communication.

Have you undertaken qual market research programs yourself? What sort of value did you gain for your organisation in the process? What did you learn? Did it help in your strategy formulation? Where have you seen qual market research programs fall down and do you have examples of where their findings helped your communication strategy and business outcomes?

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Market research index: PR tactic to help make money

A tried, tested and proven means of generating compelling content, securing consistent quality media coverage and enhancing organisational reputation is creating a research-based index – featuring headline grabbing statistics and insights – then providing expert insight on the findings.

PR using data to create big media impact

The research can be market research, where a specific group of people are questioned on an aspect of their knowledge, opinions or behaviour, or it can investigate phenomena which already has underpinning data in existence. The latter might include the behaviour of mining shares from Australian-based companies over a period of time, factors which are impacting on home lending or the population movements and trends within a specific country.

For the best possible credibility, an organisation would commission a 3rd party to undertake the research (the 3rd party can be paid, but it must be a reputable 3rd party), so as to make it known the findings were generated without bias or to meet the commissioning organisation’s preferences.

The findings themselves would then be analysed, perhaps by another credible 3rd party, but certainly by the commissioning organisation itself as well:

  • the final result could be captured in a white paper which contains all the data and insights
  • this, in turn, forms the basis of a media release and opinion pieces for the media, as well as other forms of content for organisational websites
  • a further media tactic is to offer the white paper/index content as a media exclusive
  • the content can also be shared with relevant bloggers to write about the research and insights.

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When making an investment such as this, however, because doing this properly is not cheap, the ideal is to ensure a wide array of media coverage and stakeholder interest. Further applications and benefits of this content include:

  • Being used in direct sales mail or email to target audiences as a value-adding, thought leadership approach
  • Conference and client presentations
  • Organisational website/blog to enhance SEO.

Steps to creating an index for public relations results

When using market research to create an index, following are steps to potentially be undertaken:

  • A topic is chosen on which market research is undertaken. The topic will be very relevant to an organisation’s reason-for-being and, especially, be relevant to what keeps its target audiences up at night
  • The market research will of course be independently undertaken (e.g. Galaxy, Newspoll etc) so it has 3rd party credibility with media and other stakeholders. Another option is having an academic undertake the research
  • Questions in regard to the research do not need to be extensive and it is possible they can be part of an omnibus survey, thereby reducing costs
  • The initial tranche of market research should be quantitative and use a sample that serves your purposes, even if that sample is not your target audience (e.g. you might survey business people in general, or even the general community, on a relevant issue)
  • Using quantitative research is very important (and, by extension, having a statistically meaningful sample) as the numbers give the process credibility and the media loves seeing how numbers change each year (or on an ongoing basis at least)
  • It is then optional to undertake a secondary tranche of market research, this being qualitative in nature and the sample for this almost certainly being an organisational target audience or those who are influential on a target audience (e.g. business leaders, business association heads, academics). The sample for this only need be small – six to ten being sufficient. The nature of the qual will be quite in-depth and exploratory
  • Whether the secondary tranche (qual) of market research is undertaken or not, the commissioning organisation will look at all the content and provide in-depth analysis and thought leadership commentary on it
  • The index will be branded as ‘X organisation’s 2013 Index on XYZ topic’
  • The research and the index can be repeated annually (which helps build the brand of the index itself and the commissioning organisation, as well as the connection between the index topic and the organisation). Often it’s fine for the index to be researched and appear every two years
  • Whilst the core aspects of the index topic and content should remain consistent, there can be elements of the index which change each time it is undertaken. For instance, whilst the index could have a general business focus, in one implementation it could have a section relevant specifically to industry X, in the next it could be specific to industry Y, in the next it could be specific to industry W etc. Taking this approach delivers core content for business media, as well as content that can be pitched for specific industry vertical media. Of course, it also provides content that gives presentations to specific industry audiences more resonance
  • After each implementation, there would always be a review to assess how the index content and its marketing could be enhanced to help achieve better content results and marketing outcomes.

Yes, it is possible an organisation with an internal market research team, or even a sufficient number of marketing and/or PR employees, could undertake the research themselves, without using a 3rd party market researcher. And yes, it is equally possible this research could be undertaken using an online surveying tool like SurveyMonkey which costs almost nothing.

This approach has the potential to deliver data just as accurate and, in many ways, as meaningful as a 3rd party market researcher would have come up with.

The problem with this approach, however, is media and other stakeholders may well shoot holes in it because the methodology is not as rigourous as a recognised market research company might apply and, more importantly, your organisation might have an excellent reputation in producing widgets, but it sure as hell doesn’t have any sort of reputation in market research.

Your choice…but if at all possible use the external party for the research, otherwise your media and target audience impact might prove very disappointing to you.

Using existing data for public relations-driven indexes

Depending on the organisation, the topic and the budget, using existing data (from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for instance) and having this investigated and analysed by a think tank, academic or other reputable stakeholder, can also be an excellent way to generate content for an index.

Finding the right data will be the most difficult element of this process. Whilst we are a world drowning in data, due to privacy and other issues, it is not easy to find the right data. Let’s not forget, we are talking about content very relevant to the commissioning organisation AND its target audiences, so this is a very specific remit.

Let’s also not forget the content we are looking for needs to be compelling. So it doesn’t necessarily always need to be the most useful data or commentary, but it absolutely must generate interest and enhance the organisation’s reputation. You would think these three elements – usefulness, interesting, reputation-enhancing – would all go hand-in-hand.

It’s not an illogical analysis. At the end of the day, it’s your call. To make the right call, as with any effective public relations strategy, you’ll of course refer to the evidence-based market research you have undertaken with your target audiences that underpins your communication strategy.

Because, um, you have undertaken this even more important market research. Haven’t you?

Have you been involved in an organisation which has implemented an index-based research and communication program? What did you learn from the process? How was the content shared? What impact did it have? If you haven’t been involved in implementing such a program, what are your thoughts on ideas articulated in this post?

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