Many organizations know the white-knuckle ride of getting through a crisis. Weekend fire drills, late night texts and end-of-day scrambles to pull together a team to respond to breaking situation. Resources burned at an eye-popping clip. Exhaustion and relief when it wraps up. But each time a new problem arises that has the potential to harm a business, the rollercoaster begins again: new issue, same old frantic cycles.
For businesses to break free, they must build an effective issues management program. By embarking on a full-frontal examination and planning for problems that are likely to pop up and how to mitigate them, organizations will be better prepared to combat those issues when they arise. Below are three core elements of a top-notch issues management program.
Improve Intelligence Gathering
The best-built organizations are constantly surveying the competitive landscape to understand how peers are behaving, communicating, hiring and navigating change. An issues management program begins much the same: by first gathering information about problems that might come up in the market, in regulatory environments, from NGOs or even among staff. As a foundation, companies should survey their own communications team for issues and concerns they are hearing and experiencing. Questions such as what issues are you focused on at the moment?; what concerns do you have about which the business should be aware?; how do you handle issues locally?; what triggers an escalation to company leadership? are a place a start. Companies can also ask their insurer what issues they see are bubbling and may require focused attention.
Paired with on-the-ground human inputs from staff, predictive analytics tools offer an outside, 30,000-foot view to the conversations and concerns that haven’t become a challenge for a business—yet. Traditional media, social media and other online conversations, reviewed and analyzed by a skilled team of experts, can expose issues that haven’t reached the radars of staff or leadership. Like many tools, these offer the most value when they serve as an early warning system, detecting and flagging issues long before they become crises. Investing in a good, regularly updated dashboard of this data can be invaluable.
Build a Better House
Suppose a company has researched and tracked issues that are percolating and could ultimately bubble up to become full-blown crises. Who will then lead the process of prioritizing and mitigating key issues, and what resources will be available to them? An issue management committee is an ad hoc team of cross-functional leaders that come together regularly for the purposes of planning, and then again when issues arise. This cross-functional team should comprise communications, legal, regulatory, security, operations and potentially HR, but run as lean and senior to the business as possible without duplication. When needed, the committee can draw on subject matter experts inside and outside the organization.
The committee should review and prioritize identified issues in order of likelihood and potential impact to the business, assessing and ranking various vulnerabilities and creating a simple flow chart of responsibilities within in the organization for when an issue erupts. From there, the committee can begin to prepare a set of responses and enlist subject matter experts and even outside professionals or consultants to assist in developing brief company responses and positions to the highest-priority issues. A simple combination of media holding statement, brief Q&A, priority tactics, and “owner” for an issue will be a powerful bulwark in the flurry of action that washes over a team during a hot issue or crisis. This plan itself will take various forms depending on the scale of need and the scale of the business. But preparing it to have within reach when needed will be invaluable. And while some of the issues identified may never become full-blown crises or threaten reputation harm, the practice of gathering and preparing as an Issue Management Committee helps the team accumulate knowledge and expertise while building trust and discipline across the organization.
The issue management committee can also identify issues where the organization can take leadership in a positive manner to help bring about needed change.
Enshrine Speed and Simplicity
Said General Douglas MacArthur, “the history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: too late.” The same can be said of issue management. While organizations cannot fully inoculate themselves against all internal and external threats, known and unanticipated, an eyes wide open approach and preparation is crucial to anticipating, handling and quickly moving beyond any situation to come back stronger than before.
Many companies engage in issues management, but often get bogged down in processes and bloated teams, diluting clarity and making it difficult to know exactly who is in charge and what should be done when to address an emerging issue. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, but the soul of an issues management strategy, where speed and simplicity can help an organization tackle, defend and ultimately move on. Reproducibility, too, is key. A repeatable process that outlines milestones, tactics and materials needed to handle issues internally and externally will be extraordinarily valuable, an anchor in the storm.
Finally, any plan or process needs frequent, light review, to ensure key elements remain salient and relevant. Digital tools that look ahead to help companies anticipate what is coming next need to be refreshed; issue and crisis responses and protocols deserve regular review; priorities shift and so should any issue management plan. Ultimately, ceasing the cycle of crises requires business to focus on the issues they most wish to avoid facing. In so doing, they will have set themselves up in a position of strength to anticipate, sidestep, and handle nearly any crisis that may come along and be better for it.