services & publications:

article: 20 years on - Issues Management comes of age

by Andrew A. Napier [ ]

I first came across the term "issues management" some 20 years ago, when a consultancy helped me to set up an issues management system for the Middle East & Africa region of a multinational that I was working for at the time

I was then the company's first public affairs manager in Europe, and we had a string of PR and public affairs agencies working for us round the region. Alongside the agencies, one consultancy helped us design a system and processes which enabled us to direct the agencies' monitoring of public policy and key external issues, and also to ensure that management was properly informed about those external issues that could affect the business and the most appropriate executives were involved in deciding what to do about it.

Over the years since then, the term "issues management" has been used more to cover the monitoring, lobbying and other external affairs communications offered by public affairs agencies. Arguably "crisis management" now also covers much of what we were pioneering.

Now 20 years on - after a variety of international corporate jobs - "issues management" is one of the services that I now offer independently, as part of my communication strategy consulting.

top management perspective

So what is issues management? To a certain extent it depends who you are talking to. When talking to top management I have found that it helps to stress the value of issues management as being to help achieve four main objectives:

  • to understand the potential impact of external issues on different parts of the company, in terms of risks and opportunities, and the implications for strategy, business plans and operations
  • to adjust strategy, plans and processes accordingly
  • to develop 'need-to-know' monitoring, analysis and reporting
  • to develop and communicate company positions and responses, both to influence external developments and to keep their own people informed.

This can involve setting up internal and external processes and networks, as well as effective internal and external communication programmes.

Under this scenario, the first steps are to establish how well prepared the organisation is to manage critical external developments and new external challenges, and to identify the strategic and operational changes that may be required to ensure long term success and - in some cases - survival.

Good monitoring and reporting systems and effective communications programmes are important parts of issues management, but - under this definition - they are not issues management per se.

An even more sophisticated view of issues management was adopted by a major British multinational that I have worked for: the directors believed that all functions or departments had to manage external issues to a greater or lesser extent as part of their normal remit, so we defined issues management as co-ordinating and facilitating the management of issues that crossed more than one function or department.

All issues management systems require some monitoring of the business environment. 'Raw' monitoring has become easier (and much cheaper) over the years, and there are now many more public affairs and communications specialists to help companies - and pressure groups - with monitoring, lobbying, media relations, influencing opinion leaders and other corporate communications.

Issues management systems also require issues to be prioritised on the basis of their potential impact and processes to enable organisations to decide what to do about which issue.

what organisations do, and not just what they say

The extra value that a management consultancy approach can bring is in strategy and policy development, and designing processes to enable clients to anticipate and manage the risks and opportunities arising from external issues.

Anticipating and managing business risk - non-financial as well as financial - is nowadays recognized as part of good corporate governance, not least because what appears to be 'non-financial' today can sometimes hit the bottom line hard tomorrow.

The impact of genetically modified (GM) food issues is an obvious recent example. The same could happen to the mobile phone industry if the claimed health issues get out of hand. The issues need very careful management: it seems that the science has so far not confirmed people's fears, but the number of court cases and restrictions seems to be increasing.

A similar mix of scientific uncertainty and consumer concerns about potentially life-threatening conditions presents one of many serious challenges to today's major airlines. There is anecdotal evidence and some scientific research linking deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and other health risks to long-haul flights, and personal injury lawyers in different countries are already launching multi-million dollar court cases in this area too.

Such issues all need careful handling: today's actions and reactions can aggravate tomorrow's problems, as the tobacco industry learned to it cost.

communications technology

Thanks to advances in communications technology, NGOs, civil society pressure groups and activists have become much more effective. Moder telecommunications have also opened up new opportunities for companies - and governments - to manage and communicate more efficiently on issues, both within their organisations and externally.

The internet - and particularly intranets and extranets - are increasingly being used for the inter-active development of positions and plans.

Many leading organisations now use the internet to handle enquiries and let the world know where they stand on issues. The new technology also enables a better and broader management awareness of critical issues and more active manager participation in the process.

In a way, issues management has come of age, at least in the best-practice organisations and companies.

It could be argued that the real bottom-line benefit from "issues management" - and not just issues communication - is that it enables companies and organisations to support and, when necessary, proactively adapt their strategies, plans and operations.

This in turn can enhance their ability to capitalise on opportunities, reduce risk and secure competitive advantage.

In short, effective "issues management" is about what organisations do, and not just about what they say.

August 2001