Issue management is a systematic procedure that helps organizations to identify, analyze, and respond to external or internal concerns that can significantly affect them. On this note, strategic issue management is a managerial function, which creates the information bases for a proactive examination of (potentially) critical themes that can limit strategic scope. It has to be accentuated that issue management does not solely relate to the effects of a crisis or a conflict. For a full understanding of this aspect of the discipline, we need to also consider the positive and negative repercussions concerning promotional themes in regard to a brand or a company image.
Issues are debatable topics of public interest that are connected with controversial opinions, expectations, or problem solutions by an organization and its stakeholders. Issues have actual or potential effects on the organization. An issue is an immediate problem requiring a solution (Heath 2006, 82 – 83). There is a wide variety of models for the issue management process. Most models differentiate between five or six key stages (see in particular Chase 1984; Dutton & Jackson 1987).
Issue identification: it is important to observe the environment systematically, continually, and comprehensively, in order to identify weak signals that point to a conflict topic as early as possible. Scanning is the inductive observation of the environment by using, e.g., media content analysis, surveys, or expert interviews. In a second step, potential issues as well as known issues are observed more closely (monitoring). Scanning and monitoring deliver a variety of kinds and quality of information about different stakeholders, their views on issues, and suggestions regarding the implications that their views could have for the status of an issue.
Analysis and interpretation: once issues have been identified, they must be prioritized with respect to their relevance, exigency, and consideration of the amount of resources dedicated to deal with the issues. Furthermore, the future trend of the issue will be forecast on the basis of its current and past development.
Selection and prioritizing of key issues: analysis and interpretation provide those key issues for which the organization must develop action decisions and issue positions. The key issues need to be further researched and observed. A research document identifying the history, status, potential development, and policy options open to the organization needs to be compiled and circulated among decision-makers. The permanent compression of information obtained in this process makes an adjustment of the current scanning and monitoring possible.
Development of the strategy: the results of the analysis are the basis for the development of the strategy and tactics. There are five main strategic options: reactive, adaptive, proactive, initiative, and interactive strategies. Issue management aims at influencing public and media attention in regard to particular themes, including processes of not making something a subject of discussion as well as the attempt to keep themes out of media coverage. Furthermore, framing is of great importance, e.g., the impact on interpreting themes via accentuation and attribution concerning single aspects of a theme. In addition, direct exchange and collaboration with stakeholders is denotative, contingent on the specific issue and the level of action potential of the affected stakeholders. In general, it is necessary to formulate a coherent position and a coordinated message. Usually for this purpose, a task force from the different departments and business units concerned with the issue is formed.
Program implementation: once a course of action has been decided upon, a program to achieve the desired objectives must be implemented. The program must effectively communicate the organization’s position and messaging to key stakeholders.
Program evaluation: any program instituted must be evaluated after completion regarding its effectiveness and quality. The evaluation of the output and outcome of issue management is a great challenge, since successful issue management shows up finally in the fact that an issue is not escalated or has not become public. Successful issue management does not leave any measurable issues. For this reason, indicators and models that can measure and evaluate the results of the issues management in a valid way are absent.
Issue management needs interdisciplinary cooperation within the whole organization and the issue task force. There is no standard denomination of the different roles of issue management in literature and in practice, but the role descriptions are similar: “networkers” are specialized experts from the different departments and business units of the organization. They observe their area of expertise with respect to critical themes. “Issue leaders” are persons who lead the task force and are responsible for the issue treatment regarding content. “Theme experts” are specialized experts from different departments. They analyze and execute specific aspects of the issue. Further experts complete the task force, e.g., lawyers and members of top management.
However, issue management is no isolated procedure, and it is not simply an operational instrument for environmental monitoring. Its effectiveness and performance depend on whether and to what extent issue management is established as a process and a thinking attitude in the whole organization. The organizational structure and culture must foster trans-sectoral cooperation and internal information networks. They must sensitize all members of the organization to the relevance of environmental monitoring and the early identification of critical issues.
- Chase, W. H. (1984). Issue management: Origins of the future. Stamford, CT: Issue Action.
- Dutton, J. E., & Jackson, S. E. (1987). Categorizing strategic issues: Links to organizational action. Academy of Management Review, 12, 76 – 90.
- Heath, R. L. (1997). Strategic issues management: Organizations and public policy challenges. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Heath, R. L. (2006). A rhetorical theory approach to issues management. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton (eds.), Public relations theory II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 63 – 99.
- Wartick, S. L., & Mahon, J. F. (1994). Toward a substantive definition of the corporate issue construct: A review and synthesis of the literature. Business and Society, 33, 293 –311.