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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: What's an issue manager do?

May 31, 2002
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Did you know Nike has a director of global issue management? Intel has a manager of issue prevention and management, BASF has a director of emergency response and issue management and Owens Corning has an issue management leader.

Environmental health and safety pros looking to grow in their careers might find issue management an exciting new path to follow. But what is it?

Issue management grew out of the field of public relations, but it is not "spin or damage control, defensive delay and deflection activities to crush opponents, or reactive fire-fighting in crisis mode," according to the Issue Management Council, founded in 1988 and currently comprised of some 200 organizations (www.issuemanagement.org).

Similar to the key precepts of safety prevention and industrial hygiene - anticipation, detection, evaluation and control - issue managers identify emerging trends or concerns likely to impact their organization, analyze how feelings and perceptions about an issue can affect the company, develop strategic options to protect the company, implement plans that include objectives and tactics, and then evaluate the results.

No doubt you know what some of these issues might be. Do some people believe that your company sells an unsafe product, fosters a dangerous workplace, or releases pollutants into the environment that may contribute to disease in the community? Noise, odor, traffic - any aspect of your operation that triggers questions or complaints can be become an issue to manage.

"Resolved issues are assets for your company, unresolved issues are liabilities," says Jim Worden, leader, issue management, for Owens Corning.

With stakes like these, issue managers leave nothing to chance. Their work is based on formal processes. Jim uses a tracking system, a database of inquiries to the company that might be questions, complaints, statements and opinions, to monitor trends. "Monitoring inquiries helps determine if additional information should be on your Web site, literature or packaging. And an effective system pleases customers, saves time and money, and reduces liability," he says.

On alert

Leading companies are sensitive to almost all issues today. This sensitivity is heightened by three factors. One, the Internet can quickly allow small issues to rapidly grow out of control. Two, activist and public interest groups are now very effective at making their views count with broad audiences. And three, stakeholders are quick to punish companies that do not meet their expectations.

Punishing companies when expectations are not met is a powerful force. An article in the New York Times last year showed that 84 percent of people have boycotted a company's product when they felt slighted or when they perceived the company was engaged in wrongdoings. The article also showed 78 percent wrote a letter, sent email, or called a company when they felt a business treated them poorly or misbehaved.

Even before the Enron debacle, leading companies were on something of an issue alert. The April 2001 issue of IndustryWeek warned of a coming corporate backlash and the growing risk of "powerful public criticism." And Monsanto's CEO told business leaders about the strong movement from a "trust me" to a "show me" society.

Jim Worden believes stakeholder expectations are shifting from, "What did you know and when did you know it?" to "What do you know and how do you know it?"

What to do

OK, a number of CEOs are on alert and have created issue management positions. What are the keys to turning those issue liabilities into assets?

You need to conduct research, for one thing. "It's too late to look for the answer after the question is asked," says Jim.

And you need a plan. Jim suggests these steps: 1) Identify facility issues; 2) Identify audiences (official and unofficial); 3) Develop key messages and response messages; 4) Train one facility spokesperson; 5) Identify opportunities to engage audiences; 6) Determine a timeline to execute your plan; and, 7) Conduct an annual review and repeat the cycle.

Don't try to manage issues in a vacuum. You can't do it alone. It takes input from positions across the organization to put a plan like this together - perhaps involving senior management, public relations, legal, human resources, the safety director and the environmental manager.

Savvy business leaders recognize that times have changed. Many of the issues they confront are not top-down government dictates (rules and regulations), but concerns raised by employees, investors, customers and neighbors. These stakeholders are more involved in the performance of a business than ever before. And thanks to technology like the Internet that can tie corporate behavior to health, environmental, financial and product quality issues, that involvement will only grow in the future. That's why the issue management process, headed by a trained and experienced issue manager, has found a place in leading companies. And why the discipline of issue management will become more apparent in all sizes of organizations.

SIDEBAR: Resolving those issues

At the 2002 IMC Conference held this past February, John F. Mahon, professor of management, University of Maine Business School, identified five aspects for successful issue management:

1) An ability to read the external environment and sense when momentum is building on an issue;

2) An innate sense of timing (when to move, when not to move, when to let others carry the issue);

3) Recognition that it is usually better to move early (first mover advantage) on an issue than to wait until positions are hardened and someone else has selected the arena for resolution;

4) An agreement to a given position early that is consistent and constant; and,

5) A recognition that some issues cannot be won no matter the investment or the correctness of the organization's position.

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