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Strategic Issues Management


Strategy development
By Kim Harrison
Author, Strategic Public Relations

At the organisational level

Issues management should be integrally related to the strategic planning process and should involve
a genuine commitment by senior management. This commitment can be reinforced by
demonstrating to management the bottom-line impact of issues.
The public affairs/corporate communication practitioner plays a central part in issues management
because communication is usually a central part of the response. However, the line (functional or
operational) manager from the area most affected by the issue is the person who should be
accountable for dealing with the issue.
The difference between responsibility and accountability: accountability means its your job, your
product or your reputation on the line if action is not taken, while responsibility means you will take
the action. You can be both accountable and responsible at the same time.
The extent of likely conflict raised by an issue is reflected by:

Scopethe number of people, groups or organisations involved in the conflict.

Intensitythe degree of commitment of the contending parties to mutually incompatible

positions. This is often measured by the resources that a party can bring to the conflict. The
capacity of a party to the conflict to recruit supporters shouldnt be underestimated.

Visibilitythis links conflict with the broader public. It indicates the number of people, groups or
organisations that will be aware of the conflict and its consequences and are likely to become
actively involved in the conflict (Mahon, 1997).

Two broad approaches to issues

A defensive issue is where the organisation faces or is likely to face a hostile or potentially hostile
public or regulatory environment. The organisation must choose either to respond or not to
respond. If it does respond it can do so either reactively or proactively.
An offensive issue is where the organisation is not required to react to an external matter, but
chooses voluntarily to generate an issue. This would normally be in the expectation that the issue
being generated has the potential to create a positive environment or yield positive outcomes for
the organisation. This concept is already well established among community organisations and
NGOs, some of which exist almost entirely to initiate and promote a particular issue.

Alternative strategies
By their nature, public issues can involve solutions of varying kinds. Some broad actions open to the
organisation are:

Resistancemaintain the status quo. This is often a powerful line of attack with some appeal to
government officials. Some tactics used here include persuasion/propaganda, denial of

responsibility, questioning the legitimacy of stakeholders, counter charges and diversionary

Bargaining. When in doubt, negotiate. Some tactics include positive and/or negative
inducements, expansion of the conflict (and building up of coalitions).
Capitulation. Actually give up and concede the conflict. Some tactics include seeking of the best
solution or exoneration.
Termination. The organisation ceases relationships with external stakeholders and problem
Cessation. The organisation dissolves, and ceases to exist, for example, goes into voluntary
bankruptcy after legal class actions (Mahon, 1997).

Giving the issue a name

Issues acquire a name during their life cycle. The various interested parties try to frame issues to suit
their own interests. A large and complex issue takes on life and character when it is named,
categorised and given a positive or negative angle (Heath & Palenchar, 2009, p. 101). Those who
define the issue win the debate. This is one reason why is pays to enter early into a public debate
after careful consideration of the various factors supporting involvement, and planning of an
appropriate entry point into the issue debate.

Integrated strategy
Organisations needing to interact vigorously with the external environment can establish an
integrated issue management strategy vertically and horizontally through its structure, as illustrated
in the diagram below.
Staff who participate in the issue management process need to represent the range of interests of
the organisation. Issue management strategy requires observant people throughout the
organisation to be involved in the process. Therefore, in a sense, issue management is the
responsibility of all staff and external contractors such as consultancies. Positive stakeholder
relationships depend on the involvement of staff widely across the organisation with coordination
and guidance from the issue management team.
The generally recommended role for corporate communicators is to be the boundary spanners
between the organisation and its various stakeholders/publics. But a note of caution. People who
are in constant contact with such stakeholder groups may develop a distorted view a bias one way
or the other about those groups due to the close contact with them. Therefore, care needs to be
taken to ensure accurate and balanced information is gathered and reported about such groups
during the issue management process.

Senior management
Corporate planning, finance

Issues Monitoring
and Analysis
Legal counsel
Research and

Public Policy


communication Internal and
Web designers


Internet and
social media


(senior ops

Gaining senior management support

To gain senior management recognition of the importance of issues management activities,
corporate communication managers need to demonstrate how actions in the external arena can
reduce managerial discretion and impose costs (Mahon, 1997). They need to show the organisation
can win in the external environment and that it is worthwhile to invest in such activities.
Issues management activities can be valuable for identifying business opportunities as well as
threats. If a new business opportunity can be proposed out of an issue, with a measurable dollar
value, the chief executive will be much more supportive of the process.
It is important to build allies among line (operations) managers. They are the people engaged in
revenue-earning activities at the front line and they usually see the communication function as just
another overhead living off the earnings of their hard work.

One worthwhile way of gaining senior management support is to include external affairs sensitivity
into line managers job descriptions and responsibilities. This can be achieved most easily when new
positions are being filled, although it would most likely take some persuasion of the HR manager and
senior management to make the change.
It is also worthwhile to provide regular briefings to senior management, individually or in a group such
as the executive committee. This is especially useful at the operational level so that line management
understand the implications of potential issues. It is a soft sell opportunity to promote the value of
the communication role.
Communicators can refer to case studies and industry examples of issues to generate an
understanding of context by their audience. Even periodic newsletter articles may be useful to apprise
all employees about issues and their implications (without revealing too much commercial

Opportunity for middle managers

Although they are responsible for the most important strategy decisions in organisations, senior
managers find it increasingly difficult to personally keep abreast of the issues confronting the
organisation. They dont have the time to be aware of all the challenges coming over the horizon in
an increasingly complex, dynamic and interdependent business environment. Often, middle
managers rather than the top managers monitor the operating environment and are closer to
customers and other stakeholders. These links often give them knowledge of the strategic issues
that require attention. Thus, middle managers play a pivotal role in detecting new ideas and in
mobilising resources around these new ideas.
They also use upward influence processes to champion issues and communicate information about
potentially important issues for possible inclusion on an organisations strategic agenda. By
proposing and defining issues for top managers, middle managers make important contributions to a
firms strategic direction and thereby influence organisational effectiveness.
The issues management process may also provide opportunities for middle managers to create a
positive image for themselves in the minds of top management by directing attention to critical
issues in ways that enhance their standing with top management (Dutton et al., 1997).

Dealing with government

Lobbying strategies and tactics
1. Determine the intent defensive, promotional or maintenance of good relationships.
2. Is the other side a well-known, insider group with many contacts in government?
3. The nature of the issue. Highly technical issues dont get much public interest while high-profile
issues do.
4. The broader the number of tactics used, the less control over the outcome.
5. The best organised and orchestrated campaigns stand the greatest chance of success.
6. Care has to be taken between federal and state jurisdiction (Thomas, 2011, pp. 290-291)

Approach costs strategically

Clever issue managers attempt to predict opponents strategies based on what the opponents have
done in the past.
Low cost strategies can be used to feel out the opposition and assess their tactics and strengths.
Not worth starting with high-cost strategies unless the issue is crucial.
It may be worth starting low key and letting the opponent increase their cost of response.
Low and medium-cost strategies take time, which often helps those who wish to preserve things as
they are (Mahon, 2005)

Be alert for these major errors

Reactive mode

In many situations, management is afraid of creating an issue, and therefore does not act to preempt or shape the situation to the organisations advantage.

Legal response syndrome

Where an issue develops legal considerations, managers address the issues as if they were onedimensional (simply legal). Political, media and other approaches to the issue are deactivated.

Failure to create suitable management structures

Issues are addressed by ad hoc groups. No one is really accountable.

Failure to manage

Much of what is established as issue management structures has been nothing more than
information exchange and dissemination centres. Formal objectives, strategies and plans are
often non-existent.

Success can be a negative result

Issues management often is forced on a reluctant organisation because of the cost in time and
money. It can be hard to sell because if it is successful there is often no visible result.

Case study
Western Powers development of issues management policy
This is one way an issues management strategy was developed by an organisation.
The Executive Committee of Western Power briefed the Manager Corporate Affairs to develop an
issues management policy to enable the Corporation to deal effectively and systematically with the
wide range of issues confronting the organisation.
The organisation had been corporatised at the start of the same year and faced various new issues
raised by its new status and by other issues that had not been a concern when it previously operated
as a government monopoly.
Corporatisation for government organisations means they trade as fully commercial entities, with
their own board of directors and an arms-length relationship with the relevant Minister, who does
not become involved in day-to-day affairs.

The first task in the development of the issues management policy was to select a suitable
conceptual framework:

The public issues management system


Monitor, forecast, identify, track, understand issues.

Evaluate and prioritise for action.
Assign responsibility for action.
Position development.
Strategy development.

Development of the issues management policy

Identification and listing of all significant issues.
In accordance with the first step outlined in the public issues management system, the
Corporate Affairs Manager arranged a meeting with his staff to brainstorm the issues
facing Western Power. The issues were identified on the basis of:

Their relevance to Western Powers mission and strategic result areas

Their likely financial impact in the next three to five years

Western Powers ability to influence the outcome.

Evaluate and prioritise for action.
A total of 70 issues were brainstormed in the two-hour session and were grouped into 13
broad types of issues for easier analysis. Main types of issues:
Ownership of new power station, operation and generation cost (highly political and
External access to Western Powers transmission/distribution systems (which would
enable other competing suppliers to use Western Powers systems at a cost).
Retention of Western Power as a wholly integrated business (highly political).
Change management now and in the future.
Size of workforce (reductions are always sensitive).
Community service obligations (loss-making customer services continued for political
reasonsshould compensation be paid by the regional government?).
New business opportunities (should they be restricted to electricity or pursued on a
wider basis, for example, business partnerships with telecommunications
Fuel prices (coal and gas).
New (higher) customer tariffs.
10 Cost management (reduce costs).
11 Planning for new generation (new, costly power stations).
12 Possible privatisation of Western Power.
13 Greenhouse strategy (coal-fired power stations were the States single largest
industrial source of greenhouse gas emissions).
The next part of the step was to prioritise the issues. This needed consideration at high
levels of management so a report was prepared for the Executive in which each member of
the Executive was asked to rank the issues in order of importance (and to nominate any
further issues they thought were significant).

Engaging the members of the Executive in this process meant that there would be more
ownership and support for the issues management process.
Assign responsibility for action.
After endorsement of key issues, each main issue category was allocated a committee
chairman from head office or an operational area. The chairman for each issue selected his
team from relevant cross-functional areas of the organisation. To ensure the issues were
followed through it was recommended that the Managing Director take responsibility for
the overall process and that regular reports on each issue be made to the Executive.
Position development.
The issues management strategy teams then reviewed the relative issues and reached a view
as to what the desired result should be from the issues management process relating to that
particular issue.
Strategy development.
Then a plan was developed for the handling of each issue.
An implementation program was initiated for each issue.
Arrangements were made for measurement and feedback about the results of each program.

Dutton, J., Ashford, S., ONeill, R., Hayes, E., & Wierba, E. (1997). Reading the wind: how middle
managers assess the context for selling issues to top managers. Strategic Management
Journal, 18(5), pp. 407425.
Mahon, J. (1997, 4 March). Issues identification and management workshop, Perth, for the
Australian Centre for Corporate Public Affairs.
Mahon, J. (2005). Issues management: moving into the 21st century. Workshop presentation,
Thomas, C. Lobbying in the United States: an overview for students, scholars and practitioners. In
P. Harris & C. Fleisher (Eds.). The Handbook of Public Affairs, pp. 281-303. London: SAGE