Issue management is one of the most high-profile elements of strategic communications. It’s about forging a deliberate response to a challenge facing your organization, ranging from a relatively minor day-to-day incident to a full-blown crisis. But it’s not, strictly speaking, just a communications function. Rather, it’s an activity in which communications leadership marshals many different parts of an organization in order to define and convey a sound response.
Building strength in issue management is part discipline, part knowledge and part instinct. There’s really no substitute for learning first-hand in the trenches to gain insight on what works, what doesn’t and why. But whatever your current experience level in this area, these five best practices will help you perform well when an issue rears its head:
- Integrate issue scanning into your day-to-day work. You should be aiming to live in a surprise-free environment. If a challenging issue does strike, regular scanning makes you prepared to respond by drawing on an already-developed understanding of key players, influencers and pressure points.
- Use strategic planning to structure your issue response. It’s vital to have a clear picture of what success looks like for managing your issue. Are all of your internal stakeholders on the same page in terms of the results you’re trying to achieve?
- Identify your organization’s key areas of strength. You can be a beacon of calm reason in reminding panicked colleagues about existing pillars of strength that can help forge a response. Remember: it’s always easier to build on strength than weakness, and this is particularly true when facing a challenge or issue. Your organization may have a solid presence in social media that can be leveraged; or you may have strong relationships with strategic partners or suppliers who can lend a hand.
- Assess the issue lifecycle. A strong response plan comes from thinking about where the issue you’re dealing with came from, where it is now and where it’s likely headed next in the short-, medium- and long-term. (For example, if you’re dealing with a viral outbreak in a school, it’s important to recognize that the issue will naturally be framed in the context of past similar crises, or a recent pandemic in the community.)
- Understand how the issue is being framed. In order to develop strong messaging, it’s vital to grasp how your issue is depicted in the media or blogosphere. (If the wrongful dismissal issue you’re dealing with is being labelled externally as a case of discrimination or harassment, for instance, that fact will be critical in shaping your response strategy.) Keep in mind that there is a first-mover advantage here – she who frames the issue owns the issue, so do what you can to act fast.
Issue management is one of the most exciting and rewarding dimensions of communications work. Sure, it can be stressful, exhausting and overwhelming – but there’s also something exhilarating about living on the edge, and not knowing what’s coming next.
The way I look at it is this: If there’s one thing we know for sure about our work, it’s that there are going to be waves. So we might as well learn to surf, and enjoy the ride.