By Keith Jackson
A Jackson Wells Morris White Paper
Revised July 2006
1 – ISSUES: THERE IS A BETTER WAY.................................................................................3
2 – THE COMMUNICATING ORGANISATION....................................................................6
3 – THE VALUE OF EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIONS......................................................9
4 – CULTURE, PERFORMANCE & COMMUNICATIONS................................................12
5 - COMMUNICATING STRATEGICALLY..........................................................................15
6 - COMMUNICATIONS BREAKDOWN...............................................................................21
7 - STAKEHOLDERS................................................................................................................25
8 - ISSUES MANAGEMENT.....................................................................................................29
9 - APPROACHES TO ISSUES MANAGEMENT..................................................................36
10 - THE PRACTICE OF ISSUES MANAGEMENT.............................................................42
1 – Issues: there is a better way
In January 1985, after two years lecturing in communication at the International
Training Institute, I joined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as its first
General Manager of Corporate Relations.
The ABC was attempting reform on a massive scale. A new Board wanted a fresh start, fresh
ideas and fresh faces. The old order was duly expunged and the new management set its
course. But good intentions do not produce change and the Board encountered serious
resistance each time it tried to modify the existing system.
Opposition came from managers whose careers were endangered; unions whose power base
was eroding; employees who wanted certainty but doubted the ability of management to
deliver; a shrinking audience fighting for its favourite programs – all inflamed by an excited
Through 1984 and 1985, the organisation lurched from crisis to crisis. Within months of his
appointment, managing director Geoffrey Whitehead remarked that a day did not pass
without him contemplating resignation.
The issues seemed to appear at random. Queenslanders resisting the axing of a three-minute
local TV news bulletin. The union leaking option papers, purporting them to be policy.
Prime Minister Bob Hawke fulminating on alleged left wing bias in Four Corners. A Senate
inquiry into horse racing broadcasts inspired by an aggrieved ex-race caller and his mate,
Senator Mal Colston. An infamous ‘phantom army’ of casual employees. The ill-fated
National which moved the 7 o’clock news to 6.30, to the disgust of legions of viewers. As the
pressure grew, the ABC Board fragmented into feuding factions - culminating in walkouts,
resignations and the staff-elected director suing the CEO.
As the ABC discovered, there is no easy pathway to change; immense forces of discontent
can be released. But issues need not steal the agenda - no matter how seismic they may be. In
the competent, communicating organisation, they can be managed effectively and, if
renegade, brought under control quickly. 1
There is a better way – and it’s called ‘issues management’.
1 A detailed and accurate chronicle of the events of this period can be found in ‘Whose ABC? The Australian
Broadcasting Commission 1983- 2006’ by Ken Inglis Black Inc, August 2006
Issues management involves the planning and deployment of strategy to control existing or
potential issues so they do not jeopardise the interests of the organisation or its stakeholders.
At the heart of every organisation, present in each nerve and sinew, is culture: the complex
collection of values, norms, attitudes and behaviours that constitutes the organisation’s
personality and influences much about how it functions, including how it conducts its
relationships. Indeed, issues management is mainly about relationships.
Using corporate culture as its entry point, this paper explores the background and the
practice of issue management.
Over the last 25 years, governments, corporations and organisations have placed new
emphasis on improving business performance. In the last 10 years, this has extended to a
focus on corporate governance. These trends have been driven, respectively, by increasing
competition and growing demands for accountability.
Many factors have made the external environment more dynamic: global business as the new
norm, political shifts in favour of individual rights (and individual enterprise), increasing
deregulation, the burgeoning economies of Asia, a new focus on the customer. In order to
maintain its position, let alone improve it, Australia had to change its approach to work and
to how work was managed.
The community experienced similar change. Citizens are better informed. They are more
conscious of their rights. And they are better equipped than ever to exercise them.
In adjusting to this new order, substantial demands have been made of managers. People
must be managed more creatively. Individual and collective talent needs to be better
recognised and rewarded. Process has to be subordinated to customer. Efficiency demands
synergy and synergy demands effective relationships, effective communications and the
effective management of issues. This is the world we have inherited in the 21st Century.
Issues management implies identifying and dealing with problems either before they occur or
before they develop into crises for the organisation.
It is a mandatory executive skill in a world that demands an unprecedented degree of
professional rigour and competence from its managers and communicators.
Failure to anticipate has destructive consequences 2
Significant examples of failures to read a changing environment can be
found even in the largest and best resourced organisations. Major US
corporations such as IBM, GM, Sears and CBS, to name just a few, have all
failed to anticipate dramatic external shifts.
For much of the 1980s, IBM ignored signals that the computer
industry was changing. It focused on the mainframe not the PC.
In the late 1960s, GM failed to heed signals of a potential energy
crisis or the increasing attractiveness of small, fuel efficient
Japanese cars until its market share skidded almost 30 percent.
Sears fiddled with self-branded merchandise and monolithic
department store and catalogue delivery systems while customers
demanded name brand merchandise and more quality in products
CNN pre-empted the networks in the 24-hour news category at a
fraction of the cost CBS was paying for just one hour of nightly
2 Cited by William C Ashley and James Morrison, Anticipatory management tools for the 21st century,
2 – The communicating organisation
The creation of a communicating organisation – whether it be a government, a
corporation or a small business - involves accepting the principle that managers do
not just deal with the closed system of their own entity but with an open system,
exposed to the dynamics of the external environment and the manoeuvring of
Stakeholders are more than the organisation’s shareholders, customers and employees. They
include a vast range of other interested parties who occupy and influence the environment in
which the organisation works, from which it draws resources, to which it markets and upon
which, ultimately, it is dependent.
The creation, building and maintenance of relationships through effective communications is
a keystone for successful organisations. There are four communications effectiveness factors:
relationships, information flows, information mechanisms and information content.
1. Effective relationships need to be established with those stakeholders who have an
interest (or stake) in the organisation.
TYPICAL STAKEHOLDER GROUPS
Competitors Public servants
2. Effective, reciprocal and timely information flows. The word reciprocal is important
because it implies that information does not move only in one direction. And note the
word timely – information that gets beaten by the grapevine is not going to generate
much that is positive about an organisation for the average stakeholder.
INFORMATION FLOW FACTORS
UBIQUITY. The extent to which relevant information
penetrates the organisation.
SPEED. The timeliness with which information reaches
its intended destination.
DIRECTION. The capability of information to move in a
3. Effective information mechanisms. There are literally thousands of mechanisms,
ranging from the humble memo to the million dollar website. Mechanisms can be
categorised according to whether they are interpersonal (eg meetings), print (eg
newsletters), electronic (eg television) or interactive (eg Internet).
INFORMATION MECHANISM FACTORS
UTILITY. The usefulness and practical capability of the
mechanism to deliver the information people require.
RELIABILITY. The capacity of the mechanism to protect
the integrity of the information it is disseminating.
SUITABILITY. The acceptability of the mechanism to the
4. Effective information content. The mechanisms may be first class but if content is
poorly articulated or impaired, perhaps because the organisation does not want to
disclose, even the best mechanisms won’t work. In communications, content is King and
the audience is God!
INFORMATION CONTENT FACTORS
CREDIBILITY. Information is believable and relied upon.
CLARITY. Information is easily understood.
RELEVANCE. Information is meaningful to people in
terms of their lifestyle and work.
SCOPE. Information takes into account the differences
and requirements of specific parts of the organisation.
How much new information is created each year? 3
In 2002, about five exabytes of new information was created: 92% of which
was stored magnetically, mostly on hard disks. Five exabytes of information
is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the
size of the Library of Congress book collections.
The world population is 6.3 billion, thus almost 800MB of recorded
information is produced per person each year. It would take about 9 metres
of books to store the equivalent of 800MB of information on paper. The US
produces 40% of the world's new stored information and the amount of new
information has doubled in the last three years.
Most radio and TV content is not new information. About 70 million hours of
320 million hours of radio broadcasting is original. TV produces about 31
million hours of original programs of 123 million broadcasting hours.
The average American adult uses the telephone 16 hours a month, listens to
radio 90 hours a month and watches TV 131 hours a month. About 53% of
the US population uses the Internet, averaging 25.5 hours a month at home,
and 74.5 hours a month at work.
3 From University of California (Berkeley) School of Information and Management Systems, How much information:
3 – The value of effective communications
Within organisations, the communications process performs many functions: it can
disseminate information, share core values, strengthen morale, build value and
contribute to issues and crisis management.
1. Disseminating information. A stock role of communication process is to ensure that
information is distributed within the organisation and to stakeholders.
2. Sharing core values. The unifying values of an organisation (eg, teamwork, quality,
performance-to-plan) are empty of meaning unless there is systematic effort to
communicate them. Values depend upon communications for their implementation.
Teamwork is unachievable in the absence of good communications.
3. Building value in the market. Quality information contributes to creating public trust
and confidence. This assumes that promise is matched by consequent performance.
Organisations that over-promise and under-perform have a credibility gap.
4. Strengthening employee morale. Good communications can lead to a more positive
outlook which can contribute to greater job satisfaction among employees.
5. Contributing to issues and crisis management. Effective stakeholder
communications is significant in creating relationships that contribute directly to an
organisation’s capabilities at adeptly handling issues and crises when they arise.
One of the most sweeping changes in organisational communications has
been the growth of teamwork. Boeing’s new 777 jetliner was manufactured
by more than 200 design-build teams. The teams comprised employees from
engineering, quality control, finance and manufacturing. Each concentrated
on a specific part of the aircraft. Even suppliers and potential customers
were sometimes included in team meetings. 4
4 Wall, 1992, p. 110, http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/speech/commcentral/mgorgcom.html
BEST PRACTICE GUIDELINES FOR EFFECTIVE
1 - The CEO is our chief communicator and is visible, articulate and
proclaims values, vision and strategy.
2 - Managers effectively transform top management’s vision and
goals so they are understood and endorsed by employees.
3 - Managers accept responsibility for good communications and
for improving their own performance as communicators.
4 - Multiple channels - print, electronic, interactive and
interpersonal - are used to reach stakeholders.
5 - Priority is placed on content ahead of means of communication.
6 - Employees are encouraged to engage in communications
through feedback and feed-in.
7 – Employees are involved in the life of the organisation and
managers ensure employees have a good grip on key issues.
8 - Managers recognise that employees have a personal life as well
as a work life.
9 - Communications is strategic: planned, programmed and
integrated with business planning.
10 – The organisation measures and evaluates the way in which it
communicates and uses this data to improve its performance.
In the 1980s, the Australian Graduate School of Management asked senior
executives what they would most like to improve in their organisations. Most
of the executives ranked good communications at the top of their list. A
similar survey in the 1990s provided the same outcome suggesting that,
while managers generally rated communications of high priority, this was
not reflected in actual performance.
Communicating effectively by email 5
Writing and sending email messages is easy but crafting effective messages
can be a challenge. You need to make sure your message not only says what
you want it to say, but that it conveys the right impression.
An email full of misspelled words or typos can give people the impression
that you're careless, and an angry message sent in haste can jeopardise a
relationship. Knowing email’s limitations can help prevent these disasters.
Grammar. All kinds of rules are broken in email. Don't forget that the
recipient evaluates you based on your message.
Spelling. In business correspondence, you want your words to carry weight,
not to highlight inattention to detail.
Tone. It's much harder to gauge tone in email than in conversation. Your
recipient doesn’t have the benefit of the cues they would have in
conversation. They can't see you wink or hear you laugh, and the ironic
sentiment you mean to convey might be misconstrued.
Emoticons. Although ‘smileys’ or ‘emoticons’ have become hallmarks of
online communication, they're usually inappropriate in business
correspondence. Once you have a solid working relationship, you can judge
whether or not emoticons are appropriate.
Signature. If you use a pre-formatted email signature with your business's
contact information, be sure to type your name at the end of your message
as well. Relying on the signature in lieu of your name can be construed as
cold and impersonal.
Subject headers. Providing an accurate subject header is essential. Many
people choose what to open based on the subject line; blank subject lines or
subjects that have little to do with the message contents are frustrating for
Think twice. Always re-read your outgoing messages before you send them
— especially if you're angry. Email makes it easy to fire off a message you
might regret later.
4 – Culture, performance &
Culture is the invisible glue that bonds an organisation. It comprises the collection of
beliefs, values and attitudes that forms the personality of an organisation and
differentiates one organisation from another.
It is culture that dispenses the initial shock you experience upon joining a new company.
Most people quickly adapt to prevailing culture; some accept it with reluctance; a few remain
The main output a rational organisation seeks for itself is high performance, which can be
measured in a number of ways: e.g., in terms of productivity, quality, profitability or social
utility. Research suggests the basis of high performance in organisations lies more in cultural
factors than in planning, marketing and skills.
High performance organisations, the argument continues, have a strong culture: they are
unified, outward looking, strategic and optimistic. Low performance organisations, on the
other hand, are unwilling to examine and test embedded opinions and generally show no
sensitivity of the need to manage culture. They tend to be fragmented, inward looking, short-
term in focus - and low in morale.
Culture & performance
There is a business effectiveness model that seeks to fit a number of the elements we have
been discussing into the one performance model.
STRATEGIC PLAN LEADERSHIP PERFORMANC
Factors influencing organisational performance
The foregoing model assumes that management's primary goal is high performance and that
strategic planning is the starting point with executive leadership an integrating function. Like
all models, it is not perfect - but there is plausibility and power in the way it draws together
the five elements influencing performance.
Centrally there is leadership. Without good leadership the most perfectly structured and
richly resourced organisation will fail to perform. Supporting leadership there is:
Structure. How the organisation arranges itself to do what it has to do. Structure
should be a response to market demand rather than an internal dimension driven by
Resources. The range of human, financial and physical assets the organisation
applies to fulfilling its mission.
Systems. The methods and techniques the organisation adopts to respond to
demand and to deploy resources most efficiently. Amongst the systems organisations
employ are communications, information technology and quality systems.
Culture. The attributes that make up the character of the organisation and which
distinguish it from other organisations.
Surrounding all this activity and impacting upon it profoundly is the external environment –
the relationships in which the organisation is enmeshed and which, if it is to survive, it must
The central task of management is to design and direct each of these interdependent factors
so they work together as effectively as possible.
Let us consider a simple example.
It is obvious that a change in structure – e.g., the Administrative unit taking over the
Finance function - will affect the way resources and systems are deployed in an
organisation. The change may also result in a culture shift especially if the demise of Finance
as a separate unit removes a well-established and tradition-bound entity from the
organisation. The organisation’s leadership will of course be the integrating influence in all
KEY CONSIDERATIONS IN PLANNING CHANGE
A change in one performance factor inevitably induces
changes in them all.
The relationship between each factor must be defined,
planned and communicated if the organisation is to
achieve high performance.
If you change structure without adequately informing employees of the reasons and the
implications, it is likely morale and even industrial problems will ensue. If there are resource
constraints necessitating a change in strategic direction and managers are neither consulted
nor persuaded of the merits of the new strategy there are likely to be implementation
difficulties. If operational systems are changed without users being fully briefed there are
bound to be significant downstream problems.
The Erebus tragedy: death by culture 6
The Air New Zealand aircraft that crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica
underscores the notion that organisational cultural and communications
patterns influenced the actions of its pilots who unwittingly flew directly into
the mountain at 1500 feet. To make sightseeing more exciting, upper
management changed the route from circling the mountain to flying over it
prior to a low altitude circumnavigation. The aircraft’s flight management
systems were reprogrammed by avionics personnel, but no one told the
crew. Flight briefers advised new altitudes but not in the context of new
routing. The pilots assumed the altitudes were guidelines rather than
requirements. Disaster ensued.
6 Catherine A Adams, Organizational Culture and Safety, 2003,
5 - Communicating strategically
Communications & strategy
We can't assume that the future of any organisation is likely to be a continuation of
the past. An increasingly competitive world means that past assumptions about
appropriate policies, strategies, products and markets are no longer very useful.
In Australia modern and traditional organisations exist side by side, often within the same
corporate walls. This is true whether we are discussing the public, private or not-for-profit
sector. The key differences between traditional and modern organisations are summed up in
this comparative table.
CHARACTERISTIC TRADITIONAL MODERN
World view Economic Political-economic
Focus Internal (micro) External (macro)
Concerns Static (size, structure) Dynamic (adjustment to external
Management Concerned with control, Concerned with strategic
coordination, process, resolving decisions, issues management,
work-related conflict external challenges
Definition of A technical matter based on A political matter established
effectiveness objective standards through bargaining with
Limits to the Set mainly by its own Set mainly by environmental
organisation capabilities constraints
Organisation’s Limited. Judged in terms of Multiple. Subject to public scrutiny
impact on society output of products and services and bargaining by stakeholders
Traditional and modern organisations
If we are to avoid becoming victims of the future we must develop some understanding of
what it may hold. Communications methods and techniques offer a way of influencing the
shape of future issues and events. They make it possible to influence the future by narrowing
its range of uncertainty.
In this context, issues management is in no way an adornment but an integral part of
management planning, decision-making and controlling.
Strategic communications can be defined as the organised and systematic application of
communications methods, materials and techniques to support management in its pursuit of
the organisational mission and goals.
COMPONENTS OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS
Understanding the organisation, its culture and its
Creating a network of effective relationships.
Ensuring the free flow of reliable information.
Identifying and managing internal and external issues.
Factoring in communications considerations at the
planning stage of corporate activity.
Designing and executing communications programs
which blend with management strategies.
Committing management to thoughtful intervention to
bridge gaps between intent and performance.
Corporate communications & public relations
The main facilitator of formal communications in most organisations is the public relations
department. This function may sail under many different flags - public relations, corporate
relations, corporate affairs, public affairs, public policy, external affairs or group
communications. In each case the basic task is the same: to support the development and
maintenance of effective lines of communication with groups inside and outside the
organisation. The qualifiers "facilitate" and "support" infer that communications is not a
unique task assigned to a particular professional group but the responsibility of every
manager and supervisor.
The PR function may focus on any of the external and internal relationships critical to the
organisation: media relations, community relations, government relations, customer relations,
investor relations, employee relations and so on. In addition, it may be given responsibility
for marketing, corporate image, publicity, promotions, advocacy advertising, publications,
displays and exhibitions, and special events.
Even relatively small organisations have their own public relations personnel and in large
organisations there is commonly a flotilla of ‘flacks’ or ‘spin doctors’, as journalists
somewhat unkindly call them.
Like in every other profession in a changing world, under the weight of management
expectations the nature and characteristics of public relations are changing. This comparative
table looks at what may be termed the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ PR:
CHARACTERISTIC OLD NEW
World view Economic Economic-political
Prime concern Marketing Strategy
Focus Products Stakeholders
Performance indicator Quantity Quality
Priority Image Performance
Positioning Below the line Above the line
Impacts Limited Multiple
Thrust Supportive Synergistic
Mood Manipulative Analytic
Timeframe Short term Medium term
Challenge Credibility Acceptance
The old and the new PR
PR runs into major problems when it is used to build facades over chronic problems.
Stakeholders see such tactics as dubious - and they are dubious. The bottom line is always
performance. Image is never a substitute for substance.
There used to be a school of thought, still prevalent in some circles, that any publicity is
good publicity. Australian business history attests to the thin ice on which this premise rests
– the stories of John Elliott, Brad Cooper, Rodney Adler, Ray Williams, Rene Rivkin,
Christopher Skase and Alan Bond being obvious examples.
In the short term, PR glitter may beguile and even persuade. Ultimately, however, because
PR’s substance can be no better than the product, company or idea it is trying to promote, it
will not endure.
Ill considered attempts to create ‘good news’ stories, or to suppress bad news or to crash
through with bluff and bluster can come seriously adrift.
Some supermarkets saw ‘green friendly’, photo-degradable shopping bags
as a great marketing initiative. But doubts were soon cast on the
environmental soundness of the process by which the bags were
Then, when a daily newspaper encouraged people to peg bags to
clotheslines and report on how long they took to disintegrate, it was the
beginning of the end. Ugly grey bags flapped in the breeze month after
month. We no longer see many photo-degradable shopping bags.
Corporate communications as a tool of strategic management has the capacity to enhance
business opportunities, protect the organisation, assist with the implementation of corporate
plans, provide an input to strategic decisions and promote a continuing awareness of the
total context in which the organisation is operating.
Bountiful banker brings borrowers to brink
A bank manager in a far-western wheat and sheep area has been lending in
an irresponsible way. Ladling out credit, his speciality is negotiating loans in
local pubs and clubs, assuring credulous farmers of a golden opportunity to
improve property and machinery. The banker single-handedly inflates
property prices in the district. Then, when interest rates soar, the bank starts
(1) You're the PR manager. Upon learning the 7.30 Report is working on this story,
what do you do? (2) What are the pros and cons of the options you face? (3) When
the reporter calls asking for an interview, do you say yes or no? (4) What are the
pros and cons of either course? (5) How do you explain forty foreclosures in this
small district to: (a) the 7.30 Report, (b) the local community, (c) your local employees
who are taking a lot of flak?
Dubious deals dishonour despatch
A new management team is appointed to run a public sector rail
organisation. The CEO comes from interstate and immediately faces
resentment about his appointment and public controversy over a leaked
staff reduction plan.
In his first month on the job, shocked by a long history of theft from the
despatch department, he authorises a late night raid of a warehouse and is
lucky enough to catch the culprits red handed. They are insiders. The CEO
suspends them without pay and calls in the police. The police tell him it was
known all around town that new generators, machine tools and other
equipment could be ordered from the nearest pub and delivered at a fraction
of the market price.
(1) Should the CEO keep the wraps on this one or should he disclose? (2) What are
the pros and cons of either course? (3) If he does disclose, to whom: (a) Minister, (b)
unions, (c) employees, (d) customers, (e) media? (4) And what should he say?
Perplexing prattle peeves personage
A major construction company is under siege. It has diminishing contracts,
buoyant bad debts, a drooping share price, disgruntled contractors and poor
And now it has another problem. Sensitive documents are being leaked to
the media in a steady flow. The managing director decides something must
be done: so an instruction on how to protect and safeguard documents is
issued. Soon after, the instruction about preventing leaks is itself leaked.
The MD decides he had to go further. So he forms a committee to consider,
and remedy, the problem.
(1) Suppose the committee chairman asks you how you see the problem. What do
you say? (2) What steps would you propose for minimising the leaks - or preventing
them altogether? (3) In what terms would you communicate these steps to: (a) top
management, (b) employees, (c) customers who have voiced concerns that
documents embarrassing to them might surface in the Sydney Morning Herald?
Lessons in communicating uncertainty 7
Use redundancy and repetition to communicate core messages over an
extended time period. Redundancy communicates a similar message in
different ways, like a stop sign using language, shape and colour to send the
same message. Repetition increases the odds that everyone will at least
hear the core messages.
Allow the core messages to evolve over time. Changing circumstances will
demand messages that develop. But such development must not include
Utilise employees at all levels to communicate messages. Managers often
make the mistake of assuming sole responsibility for communicating. Both
managers and employees need to be an integral part of the process.
Anticipate and respond to employee resistance points. Messages may
generate employee discomfort and resistance. Skilful managers do not
minimise employee concerns, they acknowledge, legitimise, and objectify
Frequently discuss the organisation’s future. While reassurance about job
security is necessary, the future is the predominant issue. Employees want
to know about future products, marketing plans, new customers and
Use messages to frame auxiliary issues. To frame a subject is to choose one
meaning over another. The frame acts as a lens through which other issues
are viewed, highlighting certain images and refracting others.
Align communications tools with the messages. In most organisations there
is a strong temptation to use the same communications tools regardless of
the messages. In a situation of change, traditional tools may subtly
7 Phillip G Clampitt, Bob DeKoch & Tom Cashman, Communicating strategically: a perspective and case study about
creating comfort with uncertainty, 2001,
6 - Communications breakdown
Here are some common reasons why communications fails.
Perceptual bias by the receiver can mean people hear only what they expect or want to hear
and filter out unexpected or unwelcome information.
Federal Opposition leader, the late Billy Mackie Snedden said he hadn't lost
the 1974 election, he just hadn't got enough votes to win.
In the organisational context, it can take the form of selective perception.
A British study cites the case of a production manager who recorded himself
giving instructions on 165 occasions. His subordinates recorded receiving
only 84 instructions. Conclusion: Nearly half the time the manager thought
he was communicating, employees didn't get the message.
Where there is interpersonal or interdepartmental rivalry, information is often withheld or
In IBM, internal rivalry over quality became so intense that divisions were
not disclosing crucial information to each other. This had a major impact on
performance and IBM ended up scrapping the approach.
A study of 330 United States scientists found that, where trust was weak, communications
was evasive or aggressive. This can be seen in organisations where managers evade their
responsibility to fully disclose and employees search for the hidden agenda.
The old sage said it first, "out of sight, out of mind". The greater the distance, the less one
communicates. People in branch offices often feel they are not kept adequately informed.
Information is omitted or recast by the sender. It may be deliberate. US research showed
individuals with career ambitions systematically withholding information that might threaten
or detract from their position. Or it may simply be the well-known weakening and
misconstruing of information as it passes along a chain.
A study of 100 US companies showed that, of information disseminated by
the CEO, the first level down recalled getting 65%, the third level 40% and
the fifth level 20%.
More immediate communication tends to drive out less immediate (the tyranny of the
A Columbia University survey revealed that, while half the major points
made in a lecture were retained at the end of the lecture, this figure dropped
to a quarter after two weeks.
This was most likely due to a combination of overload and failure to understand or reinforce
the key points. A critical factor in effective communications is the need for consistent
repetition of the same message over a lengthy period of time.
This is caused by a variety of factors including inadequate explanation, jargon, imprecision,
ill-defined objectives and so on.
A lecturer at the International Training Institute asked a group of African
trainees to wait for him outside a department store in Sydney's central
business district. When the lecturer returned, he found the group had moved
some distance up the street. Questioned on the reason for this, one trainee
pointed to a nearby road sign which said ‘No Standing’.
We know that non-verbal communication (facial expression, gesture, tone of voice, dress,
etc) has four times the impact of verbal communication and can result in its obliteration.
This is especially so on TV where the images can sink the words.
Information overload (a term coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock) refers
to having more information available than can be readily assimilated. It can lead to confusion
Status differentials pose problems for communication. Individuals of lower status find it
difficult to initiate communication with higher status people (and with groups). This places
an obligation on managers to establish an appropriate climate for effective communication.
US research showed that:
90% of managers said they understood supervisors' problems but only
51% of supervisors said managers understood their problems
95% of supervisors said they understood their workers' problems but
only 35% of workers said supervisors understood their problems
Reality and perception
A survey in the United States has found that the overwhelming majority of chief executives
believe public perception is as important as performance in determining corporate success.
It's not just what you do that matters; it's what people think you do. It's not just what you are
that matters; it's what people think you are.
Problems flowing from perception are more intractable than most. More often than we’d
like to believe, perception is more influential than reality. Long after the actual performance
of an organisation has improved, the perception that things are bad can continue to pose
problems. When perception combines with stereotyping, it is very difficult to shift the image
of an organisation.
Here are some solid as rock stereotypes: public servants are inefficient; banks are ripping us
off; you can’t trust a political promise; engineers are unimaginative; accountants are dull.
Having recognised there are two factors at work in defining an organisation's reputation, the
point is not complicated. Perception and reality both influence where you place your
emphasis when communicating and how you communicate.
When image (perception) is badly tarnished, there is only one sure way to resurrect it: the
organisation must improve performance (reality) then communicate the new reality. It is at
this point that we move more deeply into the substance of issue management.
A note on the grapevine
In the participatory organisation, information moves more freely. In the bureaucratic
organisation, information flows are impeded and, as a result, informal channels (the
grapevine) tend to become the main means of information dissemination.
It is commonly claimed that the grapevine (aka rumour mill, bush telegraph, coconut
wireless) is reliable. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. For the most part, the grapevine is
an unreliable means of distributing and acquiring information.
Grapevines carry without discrimination fiction, fantasy, speculation, exaggeration,
interpretation, misconstrued analysis and, yes, sometimes even the truth. But you never
know for sure what you're getting. Grapevines are open to abuse, they yearn for mischief
and should never be regarded as credible.
The expression grapevine telegraph was invented in the USA sometime in
the late 1840s or early 1850s. It provided a wry comparison between the
twisted stems of the grapevine and the straight lines of the then new electric
telegraph marching across America. The term became widely known during
the American Civil War period, so much so that the phrase permanently
entered the standard language. Soldiers used it in the sense of gossip or
8 Taken from Michael Quinion’s ‘World Wide Word’, http://www.quinion.com/words/qa/qa-gra2.htm
7 - Stakeholders
The notion of stakeholder is one of the underpinning ideas of issue management. A
stakeholder is any group with a direct or indirect interest in the organisation. It is
any group that influences how the organisation achieves its objectives.
Companies wishing to improve the bottom line or under financial duress
frequently cut staff. Not an uncommon issue and clearly one with a large
impact on a number of key stakeholders.
Of central importance are employees and unions, the latter wielding influence
in their own right. The government, especially a Labor government, may also
emerge as a key player. So too the Industrial Relations Commission where any
disputes may unfold.
Customers clearly have an interest, especially if there is a prospect of
industrial action, and there is always clear media interest.
Two other stakeholders with a keen interest in how things turn out will be
shareholders (usually keen to bid up the price of a stock when employees are
shown the door) and competing organisations.
Stakeholders must be identified, communicated with, listened to, understood and - ultimately
- accommodated. We are talking here about establishing and maintaining relationships, the
central element of effective communications and effective issues management.
THRESHHOLD RULES TO MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIPS
• Talk with stakeholders and ensure they’re listening.
• Talk in terms stakeholders are able to understand.
• Make sure stakeholders talk back to you.
• Listen to them and understand what they are saying.
Maintaining good stakeholder relationships, however, goes beyond this elementary two-way
transaction of information. There is a high level of interaction and inter-reliance between a
large number of stakeholders and relationships are, in reality, much more complex.
The organisation does not even need to be part of the argument to be dragged into it by
In the Illawarra region of New South Wales, the local Trades and Labour
Council opposed the closure of the casualty facility at Port Kembla hospital.
When the State Health Minister ignored them, the TLC threatened a strike
against the steelworks - an innocent bystander.
Faced with losing $10 million a day in lost revenue from a shutdown, the
steelworks intervened to keep the facility open until eventually the Health
Minister changed his mind.
A clear analogy we can make is that of the solar system. If the organisation is Planet Earth,
locked into its own orbit and hurtling through space, then stakeholders appear as sister
planets - travelling their own paths but exercising considerable gravitational pull on each
other and on the Earth.
To take the analogy a step further, the whole system is moving and interacting with other
systems within the galaxy. The total environment in which we find ourselves is dynamic and
KEY FEATURES OF STAKEHOLDERS
• They influence greatly the climate in which the
• They can intervene on matters in which they have an
• Their influence on the organisation can be as strong as,
and rival, managers own more direct control.
• They can collaborate to get their way.
The Australian ‘bank bashing’ phenomenon showed how customers, consumers, unionists
and politicians can collaborate in a loose and informal alliance with the media to make life
difficult for the major retail banks. This was no conspiracy - simply stakeholders behaving
interactively in pursuit of their own interests.
To the extent that this interaction between stakeholders affects the organisation, there is a
need to pre-empt or intervene. This was seen clearly in some of the events which led to the
downfall of Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond.
Tiny Rowland, a onetime business ally of Alan Bond, was so angered by
Bond's share raid on Rowland's Lonrho organisation that he launched a
concerted public relations-based attack on the financial soundness of Bond
The subsequent critical media reporting of Bond's affairs undermined
investor confidence and created enormous problems for the entrepreneur.
The Bond Corp share price and credit rating dropped, the market took flight
and bankers got jittery.
Bond Corp's subsequent demise would probably have happened without
Tiny Rowland but it unlikely that it would have occurred with such speed.
Stakeholders represent the basic building block of strategic communications but, in reality, it
is impossible to communicate effectively with them in their macro formations of
government, media, business, community etc. These groups are simply too big to relate to
and they are too diverse to allow the fashioning of relevant and focused messages.
Upon examination, it is seen that each stakeholder group contains within it many sub-
groups. These more specific formations become the focal point of communications.
EXAMPLES OF MEDIA SUB-GROUPS
• Television • Metropolitan dailies
• Radio • Suburban press
• Provincial press • Magazines
• Trade press • Professional journals
Once the sub-groups are defined as in the foregoing example, the next consideration
concerns which specific media within the sub-groups to communicate with. Media choice
depends very much upon the stakeholder’s distance from us and position in relation to us,
the message generators.
If the target audience is distant and dispersed, we deploy the mass media (radio, TV, press)
or interactive media (Internet). If the audience is closer and less dispersed, the electronic and
print media choices tend to be lower tech and cheaper (telephone, memo). If the audience is
very close, the options are again different as interpersonal communication comes into play.
It is worth reinforcing that we first identify the stakeholder, then define the sub-groups and
then select the media to reach them. The stakeholder always comes first; the media choice
second. We don't ask questions like: "Who will we send the newsletter to?" Instead, the
question becomes: "Which mechanism will best reach our supervisory staff?"
There is a hierarchy of targets for mass media messages. The message is designed for the
primary target, but there are also subsidiary targets. Say, for example, you circulate a memo
on a planned restructuring for which the primary target is staff. An important secondary
target is the union, so the memo will clearly need to be designed to avoid plunging you into
an industrial dispute. A tertiary target for the memo might be the media, given that it could
Stakeholders complicate Internet’s future 9
The architecture of the Internet has always been driven by a core group of
designers but the form of that group has changed as the number of
interested parties has grown.
With the success of the Internet has come a proliferation of stakeholders -
stakeholders now with an economic as well as an intellectual investment in
We now see, in the debates over control of the domain name space and the
form of the next generation IP addresses, a struggle to find the next social
structure that will guide the Internet in the future.
The form of that structure will be harder to find, given the large number of
9 Barry Leiner, A Brief History of the Internet, Vinton Cerf, David Clark, et al, 1998
8 - Issues management
Issues management is about caring where you end up. And, therefore, it is about
caring which way you go. This requires understanding of the external environment,
effective analysis, reliable forecasting and the competency to realise plans.
"Cheshire Puss" Alice began, "would you please tell me which
way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends on where you want to get to," said the cat.
"I don't much care where," said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the cat.
- Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’
The Cheshire cat might have been a philosopher - but it was no strategist. Otherwise the fat
feline might have pointed out that it mattered a great deal where Alice went and that, maybe,
she should stop and think about the question some more.
Nicolo Machiavelli, the arch strategist who flourished 500 years ago, understood this when
"For knowing afar off the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured. But when they are
allowed to grow until everyone can recognise them, there is no longer any remedy to be
The advice is as relevant today as it was in Machiavelli's time. Pick the issue early, we are
advised, and do something about it. Undue delay may lead to failure.
What is an issue?
In the context of this paper, an issue is any event impacting on - or which may
potentially impact on - the performance of an organisation.
There is an abundant supply of issues. They may involve economics, environment, health,
engineering, international trade, parent-teacher relations, crime, property, politics or any
other dimension of human activity. Every organisation faces scores of issues, which
unhappily often manifest themselves as win-lose situations.
In the 1993 Federal election, each of the two major political parties was
confronted with the need to manage a volatile issue.
The governing Australian Labor Party had to manage the issue of double-
digit unemployment. The Liberal National Party coalition went into the
campaign burdened with an unpopular goods and services tax.
The poll outcome essentially revolved around which party could minimise its
own killer issue while playing up the others.
Labor managed the unemployment issue by injecting the goods and
services tax with a monster virus. The GST stalked the coalition all the way
to polling day, when it lost a close election.
When consulting to Westpac a few years ago, I sought senior managers’ assessment of key
issues in surveys conducted two years apart. As you can see, the issues in consideration
varied considerably over that time.
CHANGING PERCEPTIONS OF KEY ISSUES
ISSUE 1989 1991
Service quality 55%
Overseas expansion 33% n/a
Organisational culture 30%
Consumerism 27% n/a
Product awareness 15%
Technological change 15% n/a
Leadership 12% 40%
Government regulation 12% n/a
Quality of investments n/a
Morale/self image n/a 30%
What is issue management?
Issue management is an action-oriented management function that seeks to identify actual,
emerging or potential issues that may impact on the organisation and to mobilise and
coordinate organisational resources to influence their development.
COMPONENTS OF ISSUE MANAGEMENT
• Identification, analysis and prioritisation of actual,
emerging and potential issues.
• Mobilisation and coordination of resources to deal with
• Active and strategic influence of their development.
What is so crucial about adopting a strategic approach to managing issues? Can we not deal
with them simply by handling problems as they come along?
Perhaps the best answer to this rests in a consideration of what can happen when there is no
effective issues management. Take a look at today's newspapers. Many of the stories are the
result of issues that have not been managed effectively. The issues that were managed
properly probably didn’t make the headlines.
Every organisation constantly confronts and needs to manage a range of issues.
The liquor industry positions itself as a good corporate citizen. It volunteers
to uphold advertising codes, takes a stand on underage drinking, supports
government campaigns on drink driving, and focuses on moderation in
alcohol use. Result: by acknowledging and dealing with the issues, the
industry manages its way through.
In the absence of effective communications, many issues will either not be resolved or
perceptions that they have not been remedied will linger on long after the reality has changed.
Unmanaged issues, whether external or internal, can make life very difficult for an
organisation. They can, amongst other things:
generate controversy which may destabilise the organisation
create a hostile climate of opinion which may detract from its image
deflect from planned and rational action as interest groups exert pressure
cause managers to lose focus and impact adversely on employee morale
Organisations (and individuals) that do not manage issues are jeopardising control of their
own destiny. Planned action gives way to ad hoc reaction. Issues management becomes
crisis management. Unresolved issues distract organisations from the main game. They waste
time and they waste energy. If not confronted and managed, issues persist. They rarely go
away of their own volition.
When he became managing director of Westpac, Frank Conroy was
determined to revive the bank’s flagging fortunes. Part of his armoury was
an upbeat advertising and public relations campaign. A few months into his
new appointment, Conroy said Westpac had turned the corner on its
financial problems and that the bad news was over. Soon after, the bank
announced a record loss. Further reassurances were given. But it seemed
each time it was claimed the worst was over there was another crisis: a
share float that sank, a huge overseas tax liability, unexpected property
writedowns and bloodletting on the board.
The constant attempt to talk things up made matters worse, especially as it was perceived
there other issues the bank was not addressing.
PERCEIVED UNADDRESSED ISSUES
• Damaged credibility particularly with customers and
• Media cynicism at the bank's evasion and arrogance.
• Diminished customer service which kept stories of the
bank's errors in the public domain.
Being stalked by the issues is not good management. Yet organisations frequently allow
themselves to be trapped by issues rather than getting on the front foot and managing them.
Issue management is about facing up to the unpalatable, picking the issues early, building the
networks which will deliver information and influence, understanding exactly where the
opposition is coming from and doing something about it early enough to make a difference.
Issue management requires an ability to see other people's points of view and to understand
the difference between emotional and intellectual debate. It is also a point of convergence
between business management and business communications. It reflects the reality that
organisational issues may have a public, political or industrial dimension that may determine
the course of events just as much as any decision made by management.
Once an organisation is negatively perceived it may be able to extricate itself only with great
difficulty. It's clearly best to avoid getting into this position in the first place.
Sydney’s monorail only ever had one birthday party and it was an
anniversary that should have been allowed to pass unheralded. Just as
people were beginning to forget the controversy surrounding construction
(environmental outrage, heritage arguments, oil leakage scares, nuns
trapped aloft for hours on one of its first trips), the monorail operators
decided to celebrate its first year of operation.
It was a debacle. At the commemorative news conference a toy monorail
lurched around a model railway and broke down for the cameras. TV viewers
later witnessed the spectacle of the general manager instructing journalists
"not to film that". The real life monorail carrying the media came to a
grinding halt halfway around its circuit. The celebration provided a gold-
leafed invitation for Citizens Against the Monorail to renew their campaign.
And the ABC chipped in with an investigative piece claiming that the
monorail was losing $20,000 a week. It was quite a marketing exercise.
Issues management involves taking a planned and analytic approach - not ‘gut feel’, not
emotional, not subjective, not random, not short term. When you fix the problem, you want
it to stay fixed. In the absence of effective communications, many issues will either not be
resolved or perceptions that they have not been fixed will linger on long after the reality has
Issues management is not a synonym for the so-called ‘public relations fix’. There is, in
reality, no such thing as a ‘PR fix’. Not in the medium to long term, anyway. The best PR
can do without substantive backing is to offer a temporary repair which will split open next
time there is a bit of pressure. There is no such thing as an advertising fix either. There is
only a management fix.
Early in 1988, in one of the greatest misbegotten ideas in the State's history,
then NSW Minister for Natural Resources Janice Crosio plunged into the
Bondi surf in a public relations stunt designed to show that the water at
Sydney's finest ocean beach was clean. As the truth about Sydney's beach
pollution unravelled over succeeding months, the community realised that
Sydney's beaches needed more than PR treatment.
Issues management is not crisis management, although the two are frequently confused. In
fact, issues management is the antithesis of crisis management. It involves an effort to fix
problems before they occur, or at least to minimise their impact. It involves picking the issues
early enough to do something about them before the crisis descends.
A sound issues management approach constantly scans and analyses internal and external
environments, seeking telltale signs of emergent difficulty and planning the management of
worst case situations. Crisis management is the practice of dealing effectively with issues that
have well and truly gone off the rails.
How issues are generated
At the point when an organisation translates intent into action, or when it broadcasts a
decision, its intent becomes tangible. A range of groups may be impacted by the decision and
they will react depending upon how they perceive their interests are affected. In human
terms, an issue is generated when your intent and a dissonant interest collide. Each day, there
are many such moments in the life of an organisation.
Most issues are minor enough to be dealt with as they arise, or they can be accommodated
within the normal planning and operational framework of a strategic organisation. But,
where an organisation is not strategic or where the issue is not discerned or is more volatile
than anticipated, the collision can be devastating.
ZONE OF REACTION
ZONE OF PRE-EMPTION
Planned change path
DECISION / ACTION 34
How an issue emerges
When an organisation makes a planning decision it sets out on the desired change path
leading from the decision to the achievement of a defined goal. When the decision is
implemented, subsequent action is evaluated by those stakeholders who believe their
interests may be affected or who believe they may be able to influence the decision in their
If a stakeholder assesses it is likely to be affected adversely, or believes it may be able to
leverage its position in some way, it will react. It is in this initial exchange of initiation and
eraction that an issue is generated.
Depending upon the nature and extent of the reaction, the stakeholder may intervene in the
change path envisaged by the organisation. A significant intervention can deflect the
organisation from its planned pathway. This deflection can effectively undermine the
attainment of the defined goal.
The practical application of this model, however, lies in understanding that it has two zones.
Most organisations wait until an issue has been generated before taking any action. They
operate in the zone of reaction, and are price takers in issues management terms.
Other organisations try to move to the zone of pre-emption, and are price makers in issues
management terms. This means they plan all decisions of consequence in terms of how
stakeholders will react and assessing how such reaction may impact on the change path. If
the assessment is that deflection may occur, the organisation will act pre-emptively to ensure
the issue either does not arise or, if it does, that it can be managed effectively.
9 - Approaches to issues management
Zone of reaction
No less than three separate categories of response are identifiable in the zone of reaction:
passive, defensive and reactive.
The passive approach supposes the issue will go away if it is ignored. It won't. It will
probably get worse.
When random breath testing was proposed for the state of New South
Wales, the two major breweries chose not to enter the debate. The result was
the imposition of a .05% blood alcohol limit. In South Australia, where local
breweries became actively involved in the debate, a higher limit of .08 was
KEY POINTS OF THE PASSIVE APPROACH
• The issue may be identified or it may not be.
• There is an assumption that it will go away eventually.
• There is no productive action to manage the issue.
• There is an abdication of management responsibility to
act and influence.
• The issues frequently generate major failure or crisis.
A defensive approach is not much better than passivity. Here, the organisation identifies
the issue, sits on it until it is raised publicly and then grimly tries to defend itself. This not
only relinquishes control of the agenda but the defence is often weak and unconvincing.
The former Sydney Water Board's initial response to public outrage about
polluted beaches was to say that everything was under control. Public
opinion refused to accept that position and eventually there was politicial
Sometimes, when an issue looms, it is possible to temporarily hold back the tide. But the
process is usually inelegant and a source of embarrassment.
Sydney's major newspapers and most newsagents have a cosy arrangement
where newsagents agree to home deliver (an unprofitable activity) in
exchange for the granting of exclusive rights to sell in certain areas. This
restraint of trade has effectively prevented deregulation of the industry and
was investigated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
The ACCC ran into successful resistance from newspaper groups and
newsagents' associations, a crude defensive fix to keep out potential
KEY POINTS OF THE DEFENSIVE APPROACH
• The issue is usually identified.
• It's rarely analysed or prioritised.
• It may be discussed but there is no action.
• Control of the agenda is relinquished.
• Defensive explanations convey weakness and lack of
By far the most common means of dealing with issues is to adopt a reactive approach.
Once again, the issue is often spotted in advance but either the organisation has no
appropriate means of dealing with it or there is an inclination to lock it out of sight and hope
it will go away.
Finally the issue starts running and the organisation is driven from the closet to deal with it.
But control of the agenda has been relinquished to others and it is difficult to regain the
initiative. Nevertheless, this is how most issues are handled. It's like giving Phar Lap three
lengths start. It also means making decisions on the run, often without adequate information
or research and with the prospects of success diminished by having to build substance and
credibility out of controversy and pressure.
The Multifunction Polis seemed like a good idea at the time but the media
soon made great capital with the notion of 'Japanese enclaves' and
bureaucratic confusion surrounding exactly how the polis would work.
A consultancy was paid a million dollars to design a model that nobody
liked. Corporations funding the project suspected rivals were trying to seize
a competitive advantage. The Commonwealth Government thought it should
be in charge. State Governments thought they should.
It was decided to give the MFP to Queensland but the Queensland
Government didn't own the proffered land. The Japanese wanted Sydney but
ended up with a swamp full of noxious chemicals outside Adelaide. In 1999,
after ten years of dashed hopes, the MFP was laid to rest.
The MFP people later said they decided not to communicate what they were doing because
people might misunderstand and that this would create problems for them!
KEY POINTS OF THE REACTIVE APPROACH
• The issue is usually identified.
• It is frequently subject to some analysis.
• A reactive plan is often formulated but no pre-emptive
action is taken.
• Control of the agenda is relinquished.
• Reactive management is often successful but damage
has been done where it might have been avoided.
Zone of pre-emption
Finally, there is the best idea of all - the pre-emptive approach. An organisation is pre-
emptive where - having identified the issue - it tries to do something about it before it causes
SOME PRE-EMPTIVE MANAGEMENT ACTIONS
• Prior consultation with constituencies to achieve an
• Gathering good intelligence about constituency
• Varying decisions to accommodate constituency views.
• Explaining decisions fully and carefully.
By emphasising pre-emption rather than reaction, managers provide a safeguard for the
organisation: a distant early warning system. Further, managers ensure that stakeholders
benefit from problems being solved before they get out of hand.
KEY POINTS OF THE PRE-EMPTIVE APPROACH
• The issue is identified, analysed and prioritised.
• A strategic plan is formulated.
• Pre-emptive action is taken to manage the issue.
• The issue is managed effectively.
• It may never actually impact on the organisation.
• A win-win situation for the organisation and its
There are very few beneficiaries from an issue gone bad - which is pretty much a lose-lose
It is often difficult to see pre-emptive issues management at work. Often, the issue simply
never surfaces - it has been fixed first. The victors rarely boast (Messrs Tuckey and Moore
who engineered John Howard's first downfall as Federal Opposition leader were exceptions).
Occasionally, though, you can spot the telltale signs.
In many cases of pre-emptive issues management, a particular initiative or "game breaker"
can be identified, which provides the key to the resolution of the issue.
Such was the case when Telecom (now Telstra) outmanoeuvred its business
opponents, the Economics Ministers, the Department of Transport and
Communications, the then Overseas Telecommunications Commission, the
Trade Practices Commission, the media and just about everybody else in
securing the position it wanted in the new telecommunications order. There
were two key lessons in what Telecom did. Firstly, it got on the front foot
with a politically viable and intellectually robust position. And then it
committed itself to the hard work of lobbying.
Telecom's pre-emption flowed from recognising that it would have to give away something
substantial - its monopoly - in order to secure the position it wanted in the new order.
When Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC, it decided to place
the name change in the context of a range of other planned initiatives: plans
to double in size over five years, build 250 new restaurants and employ 7,000
more people. It was an impressive investment in the middle of a recession -
including the name change as just one issue among many.
KFC's pre-emption was based on an understanding that a name change was not all there was
to the game. By placing the name change in the broader context, it was seen correctly as but
one change among a raft of changes.
Taking a pre-emptive approach allows you to plan your way through issues and to strongly
influence, and even determine, their outcome.
Mary MacKillop, Australia's first Saint, founded the Sisters of St Joseph in
1867. At the headquarters of the Order in North Sydney, they are turning a
ragtag rabble of buildings into a national shrine. But the Order was
concerned that its redevelopment of the site might be seen as a grab to turn
a quick quid from Mary's beatification. The solution was to ensure an
exhaustive program of consultation with the local council and the
surrounding neighbourhood before the development application was made.
It resulted in the Order's fear being overcome.
The Order of St Joseph's pre-emption was to take its case to all the people affected -
including the community - before making any formal move. Maybe this was overcautious
but there was a reputation of great integrity to protect.
The Independent Panel on Intractable Waste was appointed by the
Commonwealth, NSW and Victorian Governments to determine what to do
with Australia's stockpile of toxic waste given community opposition to the
building of a high temperature incinerator. The Panel decided that, before
seeking to find a means of disposing of the waste, it should first define
precisely the problem for itself and the rest of the community.
So the issue was exhaustively reviewed through public consultation, expert
hearings, a comprehensive review of documentation and research. The
outcome was recognition that the toxic waste issue was not a single
problem - it was a range of problems. This was the key that unlocked the
door to a successful resolution.
A range of problems required a range of solutions and, once on this track,
the Panel identified a number of acceptable alternative technologies to deal
with the waste.
The Independent Panel's pre-emption involved not leaping to a conclusion before everybody
understood the problem and the various options for resolving it. The panel took the
community along with it as it tracked through a public enactment of the scientific method in
a logical, step by step way.
The point about each of these interventions is that, irrespective of how obvious the strategy
may seem in retrospect, it was deliberate, pre-emptive action that secured success. This
action was planned, not random. And it was planned in a thoughtful and structured way.
Being pre-emptive allows you to plan your way through issues and to strongly influence, and
often determine, their outcome.
10 - The practice of issues management
1 - Assign responsibility for forecasting issues
Assigning responsibility for forecasting and assessing issues does not mean centralised
control but certainly there has to be a uniformity of approach and a good exchange of
information across the organisation. Issue forecasting is the research part of issues
management. In forecasting issues an organisation scans the environment and uses collected
information to determine how it and its stakeholders might react to a future event, trend or
Research by Cranfield School of Management, a business school in the UK,
revealed companies that addressed planning and forecasting issues
consistently outperform sector averages. These companies had an average
share price growth of 116% over three years (101% sector average),
2 - Develop monitoring & analysis skills
Having developed skills in identifying, monitoring and analysing emergent issues, decisions
need to be made about how to deal with them. This applies not just to current issues but also
to emergent or over-the-horizon possibilities.
Most problems are foreseeable to some extent and - even if specific issues can't be
pinpointed - experience will suggest which parts of the organisation are most vulnerable and
which stakeholders most likely to pose problems.
A wide network of contacts, a good knowledge of the organisation's strengths and
weaknesses, and a sensitivity to the climate of opinion in which the organisation is operating,
are all helpful in detecting pertinent issues.
There are training programs available in detecting and managing issues – such as the well-
proven program offered by Jackson Wells Morris.
HOW TO BRAINSTORM ISSUES
• Convene a suitable group of people.
• Brief the group on the process (suspend judgement,
keep an open mind, let yourself go, all ideas accepted,
build on others' ideas).
• Record ideas so everyone can see them.
• Assemble the issues into categories.
• Ask the group to prioritise the issue categories.
• Refer the issues for analysis and strategy development.
3 - Analyse the issues
Gather together relevant background information including statistical, documentary and
other data to table all there is to know about the key issues and their context.
HOW TO ANALYSE AN ISSUE
• Compile a history and background of issue.
• Identify the internal and external stakeholders.
• Assess influence of corporate policy on issue.
• Review research conducted into issue.
• Gather statistics that might help clarify issue.
• Define positives and negatives of issue.
• Analyse threats and opportunities around issue.
• Prepare forecast of best and worst case outcomes.
• Appoint manager responsible for dealing with issue.
4 - Create a data base
The effective management of issues requires the maintenance of a comprehensive and
systematised body of information that can ‘stack and track’ the main issues facing the
organisation. A continually updated database will keep issues under review.
Issues can be prioritised according to their impact and urgency, with high impact/high
urgency issues requiring a crisis management response. This chart depicts possible
management responses to issues of varying impact and urgency.
Issue has high impact Issue has high impact Issue has high impact
& low urgency & moderate urgency & high urgency
Response: Response: Action Response: Crisis
Contingency planning planning planning & execution
Issue has moderate Issue has moderate Issue has moderate
impact & low urgency impact & moderate impact & high urgency
Response: Document Response: Action
in database & keep Response: planning
under review Contingency planning
Issue has low impact & Issue has low impact & Issue has low impact &
low urgency moderate urgency high urgency
Response: Document Response: Document Response:
in database & accept in database & keep Contingency planning
risk under review
Issue prioritisation chart
5 - Develop an efficient system of notification
A good referral system will ensure the Board, chief executive and senior managers are alerted
immediately new issues or major communication problems arise. Action taken may vary
from a simple media release or internal memo to more complex programs of activity to
remedy a matter having serious implications for the organisation.
6 - Deploy resources to deal effectively with the issues
These may include:
people to plan, organise and coordinate a campaign
budget to employ expertise, produce publications, buy space for advocacy ads etc
time taken to explain to employees, customers or other stakeholders what is going
on; time taken to listen to what the involved stakeholders have to say
7 - Establish effective contacts with key stakeholders
Formal networks of reporting, consultation, coordination and advice need to be in place.
These must be supplemented by the development of widely dispersed informal networks;
not merely to provide social or professional opportunities but to gather useful information.
Issues cannot be properly managed unless there is a profusion of such networks and some
assurance that the information moving through them actually ends up somewhere useful.
8 - Be aware that decisions may have inadvertent impacts
Most managers have the capacity to take actions that may become matters of public
comment and controversy. In practical terms, this not only means making good decisions
but communicating them effectively, warning if adverse public reaction is anticipated and
ensuring the Minister and managers are equipped to deal with this.
9 - Assess the public impact
The public impact of an action must be a consideration when decisions of importance are
made - and thinking through how they should be communicated. Among the important
questions are: Who will be affected? What is their likely reaction? What affect will this have
on the organisation? What are the political implications? How can we optimise our position?
Sometimes these considerations will affect the substance of the decision itself. More
frequently, they will affect the way in which the decision is implemented.
10 -Assure a good inwards flow of information
Issues management is not only concerned to ensure a good and reliable outward flow of
information. It is crucial, also, that there be a reciprocal flow into and around the
organisation. While none of us should be guided wholly by public opinion or the views of
pressure groups, such attitudes must be taken into account when decisions are being made.
There must be a continuing awareness of the position of key constituencies.
11 - Disseminate messages to create the desired response
This also means being sensitive to the impact of words; to ensuring you say what you mean -
and mean what you say; and to making sure that what you say today won't come back to
haunt you in the future.
12 - Build rapport with key groups
The more hostile the group you are dealing with, the greater need for personal (face-to-face)
13 - Accept responsibility for error
Never try to defend the indefensible. If there has been an error or negligence, providing
litigation is not pending, a full admission should be made together with an announcement
outlining what corrective measures are being taken. Toughing things out is not a plausible
option, especially for organisations with a clear accountability to the public or to
"Honesty is the best policy" certainly applies to issues management. As damaging as it may
seem to have to admit error, it is nowhere near as damaging as it is to be caught out later.
Adopting a policy of candour with the media is vital. This does not mean that the press have
the right to know everything. But it does mean that they have the right not to be deceived.
14 - Explain and defend the organisation publicly
All organisations must expect to be criticised from time to time and must react maturely to
this. This means not lashing out intemperately. If criticism is not factually based or flows
from misunderstanding, it should be addressed directly and dispassionately.
15 - Provide media training
It's important that management communicate competently in public. There is a need to
conduct interviews so key messages are communicated. Formal media training, anything
from a few hours to regular refreshers, and even training in public speaking may be required.
Depending upon the issues, rehearsals may also be required.
16 - Build media relations
The news media will be one of the most important conduits for delivering information. It is
important that the organisational management establish a good network in the local media:
finding out who they are, dealing with them on a personal basis and making sure they know
you and your key managers and that they understand what your organisation does and what
its major programs are. Regular press briefings, even when there is no major announcement
or story, are a good idea.
Briefings should include media owners and editors not just working journalists. Conducts
these meetings when your organisation is not in crisis or beset by problems to present
information in a balanced non-controversial context. Make sure the media have contact
numbers and that they are re aware they can contact you or your spokespeople any time.
Plan an approach for dealing with the media in crisis situations.
17 - Develop communications materials
Depending upon the level of previous communications, the community may have only a
vague idea of exactly what your organisation does. This is where materials may be
important: brochures, handbooks, fact sheets, internal talking points for managers, videos,
kids' workbooks, posters, stickers, badges, bookmarks, etc.