Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.