Want trouble? Don’t have an issues management plan

business meeting picPeople often want to know the difference between issues management and a crisis. Some use “issue” interchangeably with crisis, but they are not the same. An issue is usually, but not always, slow burning, whereas a crisis is often an explosive event.
One thing is certain: if an issue is not managed properly, you may find yourselves moving to a crisis, fast. And an unmanaged issue leads to reputational damage, loss of revenues, and potential threats to health and safety.

Your reputation is an asset, and when your organization has an issue that is turning into a train wreck, it can affect your reputation, your tax revenues, or your bottom line. Sometimes the only way to measure reputation damage is in lost clients and investors. Another obvious one is being voted out of office.
Seems simple enough.

To demonstrate the importance of having an issues management process, I wondered what might have turned out differently had an issues monitor been watching a few situations in my neck of the woods?
These two issues have now morphed into debacles, as unminded issues often will do.

Witness our battle between the city mayor and the police services board. He’s suing them, and he’s been kicked off the board. Rumours are running rampant, sides have been taken, positions hardened, and the reputation of both our city and the police has taking a kicking locally, provincially and nationally.

Another one: A mega buck $40 million world class Buddhist temple complex, anticipated to bring in tons of tax revenue and tourism dollars to a local township, suddenly found itself having to deal with the threatened arrival on its serene, contemplative doorstep of none other than industrial wind turbines. Chinese developers had been banking land for over 20 years for the 7800 acre project, and are naturally horrified.

I have no idea how things will turn out in either case, but they are great examples for why it’s a good idea to have an issues management process in place.

Here is a quick guide:

• As soon as you have a new development, or a public difference of opinion, (or preferably even before that) designate someone to monitor key sources such as news media, websites, trade associations and social media.
• Map your stakeholders. I simply listed them when I did the communications plan after the Peterborough flood of 2004, but lovers of charts, coloured bars and software can get really fancy. Turns out we missed a few too, which, for me, was an important lesson: listen to more people.
• Use an impact matrix – there are lots to be found on the internet. Or hire someone to help you set it up. There are loads of examples out there: http://www.projectmanagementlexicon.com/probability-and-impact-matrix/ http://www.pmonline.gov.qa/
• Keep your files and position statement refreshed so that they are always current.
• Assign ownership over an issue – this is not going to necessarily be the same person who is monitoring your issues grid for you.
• Make sure this person is clearly identified to your entire team/workplace. Often staff can alert an organization to an issue.
• Have your chain of command identified and make sure the CEO, CAO is kept up-to-speed on a regularly scheduled basis. Avoid surprises.
• Remember that boards of directors must be directly involved – boards are accountable for outcomes.
• Issue reports should be available to external stakeholders (e.g. Annual report, corporate responsibility report).
• Issue updates on your organizational/municipal website. Ensure that stakeholders can find out what’s being done, or isn’t being done, and why.

Tips: Look at it through different perspectives and lenses. Imagine yourself walking around the room and looking at something in the middle (your pet mega million project, or the police services board,for example). Now you are a backer, or an angel investor, or the family of a police officer. Now you are head office management (possibly based in another national culture where screw-ups are tied closely to a rigid concept of honour). Now you are the provincial government looking at a hot potato in your lap. Now you are a local property owner /taxpayer worried about your health and safety. Now you are the media, hoping for a hot story.

And you begin to see the complexity. You will have diverse views, competing needs, and an overarching need to manage the issue. If you leave any stakeholder group out once you’ve identified them all, you will have a lopsided picture and those overlooked will likely roar.

After the 2004 Peterborough flood when the sewage treatment centre had to be bypassed, no-one thought to tell the native community downstream at Rice Lake. As I recall, the affected community handled the deluge of untreated poop with tremendous restraint. I’d missed them on the stakeholder grid.

They didn’t roar. But they could have.

Have a plan, work it, refresh it, report on it. You’ll save your organization a lot of grief.

About Jane Carthew Davidson

As a former senior public relations specialist with a large publicly traded multi-national chemical company, Jane Carthew Davidson produced the company’s award winning annual report for several years. Later, she was media relations specialist for Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), where she wrote speeches for the executive team, trained spokespersons across the province, and developed talking points and strategies designed to clarify the role played by property assessment within the municipal taxation system. Jane is a former business reporter for the Globe and Mail Report on Business, and the Toronto Star’s Business Today. Her articles have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Medical Post, the Anglican Journal, the Financial Post and most recently, the Globe and Mail’s special supplements on subjects as wide ranging as organic farming and new investment regulations. On several occasions, Jane’s media savvy and quick research skills enabled her to win broad media attention and investment queries from Canada, the Unites States and Europe, for a unique medical device start-up venture. Following Peterborough’s Flood of the Century in 2004, Jane handled media relations for the City of Peterborough, developing and implementing the communications plan for the city’s media outreach to afflicted citizens, concerned insurance companies, city staff and other government stakeholders.
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