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10.5 Issues Management and Public Policy

A large part of public affairs is ongoing issues management, and the issues management function is often grouped within the same department or set of responsibilities as public affairs. For example, the public relations function at Johnson & Johnson is divided into several functional departments, the highest level being “public affairs and group issues.”Hoover’s Handbook of American Business (1997). In most organizations, especially in corporations, issues management and public affairs are inextricably linked. Organizations must manage public policy issues that they create as a consequence of their doing business. Organizational policy must continually be revised and updated to reflect the current regulatory environment as well as the demands placed on it by publics.

Issues management is the process through which an organization manages its policy, and identifies potential problems, issues, or trends that could impact it in the future. The issues management process is a long-term, problem-solving function placed at the highest level of the organization through which it can adapt organizational policy and engage in the public affairs process. Issues management allows the top professional communicator to interact with government and publics, advising the CEO about the values of publics and how they enhance or detract from the organization’s reputation with those publics.

Heath defines the issues management function in the following way: “Issues management is a process for establishing a platform of fact, value, and policy to guide organizational performance while deciding on the content of messages used to communicate with target publics.”Heath (1997), p. 45. Those target publics include key executives of the organization, legislators, government regulators, interest groups, and so on. Heath explained, “An issue is a contestable question of fact, value, or policy that affects how stakeholders grant or withhold support and seek changes through public policy.”Heath (1997), p. 44.

Why is issues management so important? Grunig and Repper noted that if an organization is unresponsive to the appeals of publics, they will lobby the government to regulate the organization or seek other public policy changes forced onto the organization in the public policy arena.Grunig and Repper (1992). In that case, the organization loses its autonomy, meaning that key decisions are legislated and regulated rather than made by top management, often costing the organization a great deal of money or resources. Ideally, the organization would know how to best allocate its own resources and would manage issues in a more efficient and effective way than having those legislated and standardized across an industry, so maintaining its autonomy is generally the goal of issues management.

In issues management, we not only look for emerging issues that can affect our organization, but we also seek to build long-term, trusting relationships with publics, both governmental and grass roots. Heath explains how communication is used to help in the issues management process by noting that “the more that an organization meets key publics’ need for information, the more likely they are to be praised rather than criticized.”Heath (1997), p. 149. Of course, managing the organization in a way that is ethical and does not seek to exploit publics or other groups allows the issues management function to truly contribute to organizational effectiveness: “Issues communication is best when it fosters mutual understanding that can foster trust. This communication must be two-way and collaborative.”Heath (1997), p. 149.

Issues management should be collaborative, based on the research that the issues manager has conducted. The research is what makes the issues management process “two-way,” meaning in that it is based on understanding the view of publics by bringing input into managerial decision making from outside the organization. This research can be used to provide vital information at each stage of the strategic planning process. However, Heath notes that “communication may not suffice to reconcile the differences that lead to the struggle.”Heath (1997), p. ix. Thus, issues management cannot resolve all problems with communication or make all decisions mutually beneficial. It can help to incorporate the values of publics into strategic decision making whenever possible so that less resistance from those publics is evidenced, and their lobbying initiatives do not target the organization, which could lead to a loss of decisional autonomy through legislation.

Issues management is normally conducted on a continual, ongoing basis in which the manager is monitoring, researching, advising, and communicating about a number of concurrent issues at any given time. How many issues are managed will depend on the size of the organization and the turbulence of the industry in which it operates. Successful issues managers are those who hold in-depth knowledge of their industry, problem-solving ability, negotiating skill, and the analytical ability to examine the issue from numerous perspectives. Let us take a closer look at the process of conducting issues management.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, Chase posed an early and widely accepted model of issues management. That model included the following steps:

  1. Issue identification
  2. Issue analysis
  3. Change options
  4. Action programChase (1984).

The Chase model, though easy to remember, is a bit simplistic, and others have elaborated on the steps in great detail. For example, Renfro’s book on issues management summarized the process thus: “1) scanning for emerging issues, 2) researching, analyzing, and forecasting the issues, 3) prioritizing the many issues identified by the scanning and research stages, and 4) developing strategic and issue operation (or action) plans.”Renfro (1993). Although Renfro’s model is an excellent one, we believe that Buchholz, Evans, and Wagley offered a slightly more comprehensive, six-step model for managing issues that is directly designed for the public policy needs of management.Buchholz, Evans, and Wagley (1994). (See the following list.)

The Steps of Issues Management

  1. Identify public issues and trends in public expectations

    • Scan the environment for trends and issues
    • Track trends in issues that are developing
    • Develop forecasts of trends and issues
    • Identify trends and issues of interest to the corporation
  2. Evaluate their impact and set priorities

    • Assess the impacts and probability of recurrence
    • Assess the corporate resources and ability to respond
    • Prepare the issue priorities for further analysis
  3. Conduct research and analysis

    • Categorize issues along relevant dimensions
    • Ensure that priority issues receive staff coverage
    • Involve functional areas where appropriate
    • Use outside sources of information
    • Develop and analyze position options
  4. Develop strategy

    • Analyze position and strategy options
    • Decide on position and strategy
    • Integrate with overall business strategy
  5. Implement strategy

    • Disseminate agreed-upon position and strategy
    • Develop tactics consistent with overall strategy
    • Develop alliances with external organizations
    • Link with internal and external communication networks
  6. Evaluate strategy

    • Assess results (staff and management)
    • Modify implementation plans
    • Conduct additional research

Source: Buchholz, Evans, and Wagley (1994), p. 41.

Arguably, the most important phase of issues management is the issues scanning, monitoring, and analysis phase. If an issues manager fails to identify an emerging issue, the hope of creating a proactive plan to manage the issue diminishes. Once an issue emerges into the public policy arena, the organization loses control of defining the issue and time is of the essence in its management. Monitoring for emerging issues and predicting the future importance of issues is called issues forecastingThe phase within issues management in which emerging issues are monitored and their future importance is predicted.. Issues forecasting is a bit like fortune telling; we can never accurately predict the future emergence of an issue with all of its nuances and the dynamic interactions of the issue with publics.

Another argument could be made that the research and analysis of an issue is the most important phase for determining priorities and how to best handle the new issue. The more research an organization can gather, the more informed its decisions should be. Still, an element of strategy exists within the collection of data, its analysis, and its interpretation into managerial policy. But as Heath cautions, “Data are only as good as the insights of people who analyze them.”Heath (1997), p. 100.

A large part of government relations and public affairs is the lobbying processThe part of government relations and public affairs in which the research, knowledge, and policies formulated through issues management are communicated to legislative publics. in which the research, knowledge, and policies formulated through issues management are communicated to legislative publics. This communication often takes place while educating elected officials on an organization’s point of view, contribution to society, regulatory environment, and business practices. The legislative process is one in which organizations can integratively and collaboratively participate, helping to inform legislation. Oftentimes, lobbyists are hired to advocate for or against legislation that would potentially impact the organization. Regulatory impact, or “constraints imposed by outside groups or interests,”Grunig, Grunig, and Ehling (1992), p. 67. is thought to be costly and is normally argued against by organizations that seek to maintain their autonomy in order to create more effective management.Mintzberg (1983).