When it comes to building a successful organization and securing a competitive position in your industry, investing in intangible assets, like reputation, has become a baseline necessity. Safeguarding your reputation is a business fundamental, because it helps increase revenues, market value and overall financial performance. A stellar reputation also distinguishes you from your peers, builds strong brand trust from the public and loyalty from your customers, and secures your long-term presence in the marketplace. But reputational capital is fragile. As Warren Buffet once famously put it, “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
Issues Management Is Reputation Management
Many companies rely on proactive marketing to bolster their reputations and brand visibility; they often don’t pay enough attention to managing issues well. The way we see it, issues management is reputation management. Issues can be small and large and arise both internally and externally. Whether a product quality or safety concern, organizational shift, social media flareup, environmental spill or new regulation, the issues of today can worsen and become the crises of tomorrow—creating reputational fallout and challenging recoveries. Sharp companies identify and mitigate issues early. They also demonstrate leadership on key emerging issues to burnish their reputations.
Reputations Are Based on Stakeholder Perceptions
Now more than ever, organizations are held accountable both for missteps and missed opportunities to meaningfully engage in social and political issues. Consumers expect companies to be aware of what is going on around them, respond quickly and correct their failures, and find ways to participate in solutions as responsible actors and corporate citizens. And at the end of the day, a company’s reputation is the collection of perceptions from key stakeholder groups, such as investors, customers, suppliers, employees, regulators, NGOs and the local communities where you have a business presence.
When you close the gap between what your stakeholders expect from you and what you are doing, you create a more resilient reputation. It is essential too to protect against misperceptions—today misinformation and even conspiracies perpetuated by critics and detractors are rampant. Today when truth is an eight-lane highway and falsehoods tend to gain more traction, you must diligently monitor what is said about you and employ both reputation-building and rapid response to shape stakeholder perceptions.
Ongoing Preparation Matches a Constantly Changing Environment
The environment around us is ever evolving, as are corporate business needs and interests. There are so many isolated and unpredictable factors that can drive public opinion and alter stakeholder perception that any type of issues management work loses value over time without a mechanism to keep apprised of the changing landscape.
Therefore, an effective issues management program is the proactive (and ongoing) process of identifying and preparing for challenges that have the potential to disrupt the business. The key aspect of this definition is that it’s an ongoing program and not just a plan created to address a particular moment in time. It’s a form of organizational hygiene that, when effective, is self-sustaining and a habitual, long-lasting practice that becomes embedded into the day-to-day business. With a constant thumb on the pulse of internal and external happenings, you are able to avoid surprises, anticipate new needs and act quickly and proactively.
The Bare Necessities
The demands of the business and uncertainty around decision-making often distract companies from forward thinking and proactive action on the issues management front. But not taking the time to reflect on past experiences, build strategic relationships and look ahead can be an organization’s undoing. We typically see companies struggle when they don’t:
- Pay attention to the external landscape and forecast relevant trends;
- Proactively identify priority issues and engage stakeholders meaningfully;
- Invest in capabilities, expertise and resources to support planning and response;
- Designate an internal team to keep apprised of the issues, coordinate cross-functionally and own the response and decision-making; and
- Adopt an approach that is an ongoing process with fine tuning over time rather than a one-and-done exercise informed by a static plan.
While the list above describes the bare necessities of issues management, the program can also be more all-encompassing and incorporate a diverse range of integrated tactics to bolster the effectiveness of the communications response and capitalize on opportunities to show up in conversations and demonstrate progress and learning around relevant areas of concern. But an issues management program looks different for everyone and there is no one-size fits all approach. For instance, there is risk of overengineering a program for smaller organizations or not developing more robust, multi-layered policies for more complex business structures.
The goals and guideposts of an issues management program can look roughly the same for most companies, but the infrastructure adopted to tackle the issues requires deep customization and other considerations for change management. Beyond the bare necessities of an issues management program, there are so many other activities in a communications toolbox that can be leveraged to build reputational capital or support reputational recovery, including, but not limited to, digital audience targeting, social listening, executive positioning, thought leadership, employee engagement, creative storytelling, coalition building, legislative monitoring and corporate philanthropy, among many others.
But the first step and foundational part of the process that informs how we build the program is the same for everyone—research and information gathering to identify an organization’s priority issues. So much of the current and potential issue landscape depends on the nature and size of your business, the industry and your own experience, media coverage and conversations, and your stakeholder universe. Getting a lay of the land is imperative to building an impactful program that makes sense to your organization and is feasible in its adoption and practice. Consider the following activities to get started and gain a deeper awareness of your risk environment:
- Conduct an internal listening tour with cross-functional representatives from across your organization to uncover issues and opportunities and to better understand the needs that are impacting your business.
- Analyze the media landscape by reviewing insights from digital tools that scan trends in coverage and conversation across social, broadcast and traditional media platforms.
- Identify core competitors, shared industry challenges and case studies from industry peers to understand best practices and common mistakes.
- Consult with subject matter experts to assist in providing feedback on strategy and tactics and creating connections with decision-makers and other key influencers in the network of the specific industry or issue of concern.
- Pull predictive digital analytics to forecast issues in both the near and long-term and be better equipped to deal with relevant emerging risks and future trends.