Issues Management – Mind the Gap

October 26, 2022

Unless you spent this summer off the grid, chances are good you were following the Rogers ‘national network outage’ and Bell Media ‘Lisa Laflamme firing’ stories. Much ink has already been spent on what happened and what went wrong. I won’t pile on further, but I think we can agree Rogers and Bell got pretty banged up, reputationally speaking.

Could they have managed these issues better with their stakeholders? Likely, yes. 

Unless you are standing still, and sometimes even if you aren’t, you can expect to have issues come up. And as this summer’s lead stories exemplify, in a digital era, reputations can be shredded at a breakneck speed. In most organizations, when an issue is spinning out of control, the communications team or an external consultant is brought in to bring order to the chaos. 

But I argue that truly effective issues management is not just about communications, and it isn’t a one-time event. 

At the risk of dating myself here, remember the 80’s movie Karate Kid? Mr. Miyagi tells his young student Daniel to put wax on his cars, spreading the wax on in a circular motion with his right hand and then rubbing the wax off in a circular motion with his left hand. He’s teaching Daniel the basics of karate through repetitive motions and muscle memory. Issue management, done properly, is a function of corporate strategy and works optimally when considered as part of regular operational activities. 

Most definitions of issues management are organized around the core idea that it’s a strategic planning process used to detect, protect, explore and close gaps between the actions of the organization – specifically a corporation – and the expectations of its stakeholders

Here are a few key elements of effective issues management:

  1. Monitor, anticipate, repeat. 

As business people, we are already really good at looking for the gaps in the market, analyzing consumer trends and the like when seeking opportunities. It stands to reason, then, that we can apply the same skill set and tools to detect and respond appropriately to both internal and external changes or trends before stakeholder gaps emerge. Monitoring and anticipating trends, when viewed as a part of everyday business, does not just allow you to avoid a future crisis, can actually help you position your business to take advantage of a crisis. 

Wax on, wax off, right?

  1. A small or potential gap is detected. Now what?

It was John F. Kennedy who is thought to have said: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” 

In other words, trying to fix the roof during a downpour is a sure path to getting wet. There is a big difference between reacting and responding, and a lot of that difference comes down to preparation. Bear in mind, too, that in the digital era, issues most often emerge on the web and can proliferate rapidly. 

To remain composed and in control when facing an issue requires an issues management process to have been established in advance. Some organizations have instituted a rapid-response team, others use alternative scenario development frameworks as part of their strategic planning. These groups and processes ought to be cross-functional, senior-level and applied routinely against the findings of your ongoing monitoring and analysis.  

Should these regularized processes reveal it is time to act, the people are in place, the potential elements of issues are well-understood, and, your organization is coordinated in its response. You can’t always control what issues arise, but you can control whether an issue becomes a crisis or an opportunity. 

Issue management is anticipatory project management at its core. In a digital world, it is an absolute best practice.

  1. Risks, Problems, Issues, Crisis, oh my! 

 In the corporate world, failing to grasp what you are dealing with can significantly skew your response and how you communicate with your stakeholders to close gaps. 

Risks and issues are relatable but not interchangeable concepts. Not every issue becomes a crisis, and not every problem is entirely within your control. Understanding the difference between these terms and their status is yet another way to apply strategic oversight to your decisions. For example, damage to corporate reputation is an example of a risk, while the issue might be that your business is about to lay off 500 people. 

 Failing to see the different but interrelated nature of issues and risks is one of the most common threats to any business. 

 Just ask founder and CEO Vishal Garg, who went viral for firing hundreds of employees over Zoom. 

 Similarly, a problem can be defined as something bigger and more encompassing and generally beyond the capacity of your corporation to fix alone. Problems like pollution, labour exploitation, discrimination, and poverty are complex, and solutions are not owned by any one entity. Issues, however, are more contained and specific, involving potential solutions like regulation to curb emissions or developing codes of practice to improve workers’ rights. 

  1. Issue Management. It’s not just for your VP of Communications anymore. 

 In today’s world, viewing issues management as purely a communications exercise is painfully outdated. I alluded to it above when I spoke about establishing a cross-functional issues management process, but let me be even more clear. 

 Your communications team is your in-house expert on crafting messages for different stakeholder audiences. They know all about which communications channels to use and when, and they are often brilliant at reading the public mood and media-worthiness. The old expectation of those in corporate offices is that the ‘communications division will handle that stuff’ when issues begin to arise. Your communications team are not wizards, all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful. 

 Today’s issue management must be viewed as an enterprise-wide undertaking. An effective issues management team ought to include people best equipped to decide, direct and implement the organization’s total response. 

 At this stage, the team allocates resources to an emerging or current issue and initiates the investigation of various strategic options – including communication. The process requires the ongoing collaboration of key internal stakeholders, facilitated by frequent interactions. In other words, issues management demands enterprise leadership, cross-functional collaboration, and regular team communication, and all of this requires practice so that when an issue emerges, you have a well-oiled machine, not headless chickens looking for a place to hide. 

  1.  Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

 The most valuable resource an organization can ever have is the trust of your stakeholders – your customers, clients, partners, and even critics. To build trust, your communications must always be authentic. 

 That goes double when you are in trouble. 

 In a digital context, the truth is always out there somewhere. When managing an issue, particularly an issue veering toward a crisis, attempting to divert your stakeholder’s gaze elsewhere or even colouring the truth in your favour can hurt you far more than the original issue itself. Digital marketing expert Seth Godin writes: “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

Crisis Management can be intense. Issue management is not. Most of the crises you will ever face start out as issues you and your organization are more than capable of managing with proper planning and integrity. 

Want to learn more? For leaders, I’ve developed a seven-step Issue Management program. You can check it out here.