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Contrary to its positioning amongst the professional communication and broader business environments, issues management is not always inextricably integrated into crisis communication. In fact, its strongest characteristic is strengthening an organisation’s reputation so it is less likely to be negatively impacted on by a crisis.
Issues management is, therefore, both an inherent component of all effective PR and a discrete approach (and even tool) that can be applied in specific situations.
You can almost tear issues management into two themes:
- Uh oh – here comes a proverbial %#@*storm down the funnel; let’s circle the wagons and try to resolve the issue or minimise the damage before we get started into crisis mode
- Party time! – choosing from a range of marketing communication and/or public relations tools (preferably as part of a broader strategy) to create strong, positive, mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders.
Defusing the bomb: proactive reactive PR
‘Proactive reactive PR’? Okay, alright, I know it sounds like spin. But it ain’t.
This notion is founded on your issues management process identifying that there is trouble up ahead. You might find this out through your Google alerts, through your community consultation process, through employees that have enough savvy to let you know about an issue they have come across.
Hopefully, you haven’t found out about it through your media monitoring. By then the horse has probably bolted (i.e. bye bye issues management; hello crisis comms!).
Being proactively reactive means you have identified the issue and are going to do something about it before it impacts negatively on your reputation to any significant degree. The two main responses are to communicate with your stakeholders, or actually do something about what has caused the stakeholder consternation.
Too often public relations professionals will satisfy themselves with sticking to the former (i.e. meetings, consultation, letters to those concerned etc). The more strategic and braver professional will actually seek to attack the second potential response:
- do something about what has caused the stakeholder consternation.
In most cases only this response can actually make a long-lasting impact on the relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders. This response is at the heart of two-way symmetrical communication, the primary theory that underpins and drives best practice public relations.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Sometimes the issue that has been identified may actually simply be (simply? Well, on a comparative scale, yes, just simply) a communication-related problem.
Party time for PR pros
I get the feeling that a lot of PR pros have the view that doing consumer media relations, holding big events, sponsoring fun family days and the like are simply fluffy PR activities. They aren’t ‘serious’.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As part of an holistic, integrated communication strategy all of these activities are thinking about the following:
- Who are the stakeholders/target audiences of most concern/importance to an organisation?
- What are the issues of most concern/relevance/importance to these stakeholders?
- What is the timeframe we have in making an impact on knowledge/perceptions/behaviour towards the organisation in regard to these issues?
- What are the communication mechanisms that will enable the organisation to get information on the relevant issues to the stakeholders most expeditiously and in the most influential manner (i.e. a short presentation by an organisation employee before a sponsored school event with local parents in attendance may be a more influential, targeted and quicker way to go than getting a story in a national newspaper on the issue)?
- What or who will influence the stakeholders? For instance, is there a 3rd party advocate for the organisation relevant to the issue at hand that can communicate to stakeholders in an influential manner?
There are more questions than these (I’m thinking budget for one!), but these five elements are very important.
So the following can all be extremely ‘serious’ and much important communication activities than government lobbying, media relations and crisis management:
- Sponsoring a school fete
- Presenting to the local ladies View Club or Rotary Club
- Putting together a curriculum-relevant schools resource.
But let’s not forget the most import issues management/avoidance approach of all is: behave/operate in line with your stakeholders’ expectations.
The basics of PR
PR pros should never forget that we can change the world through a strategic application of our skill set. We can lobby internally to change the way an organisation operates:
- The processes it uses to manufacture products (i.e. no sweatshops)
- The products it produces (i.e. reduced fat/sugar in products)
- The way in which it responds with stakeholder concerns (i.e. engages and/or evolves and does not obfuscate or avoid).
Communication itself can only do so much. It cannot, in itself, change an organisation or the fruits of its labours. But it can help clarify, enlighten and facilitate engagement.
Perceptions are reality. It is our responsibility to our organisations and to society in general to be honest and ethical in the way we go about our jobs.
Now THAT is issues management.
What do you think about my proposition that issues management is an integrated part of ALL strategic PR activity? Is that the way you look at it? What examples of where you have applied this thinking that had an impressive impact can you think of? And what about the ‘proactive reactive’ model of PR? Also, can you tell me where PR activity has changed the way an organisation operates?
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