Taming an Issue Before It Roars

Issues management involves more than knowing how to escape the tiger cage. It requires the skills to tame the tiger by anticipating emerging issues with enough time to respond proactively.Your best opportunity to tame a thorny subject is before it becomes a public issue.

Issue management is often associated with public relations and lobbying exertions to corral an issue that has erupted into a public debate, prescriptive legislation or regulatory action, all of which can be messy and expensive. There is considerably more room to maneuver before an issue reaches the front pages, a bureaucrat's desk or the legislative bill hopper.

This requires anticipation — and a different bag of tricks.

It's not just who you know, it's what you know

Tamping down an issue that has exploded into the public consciousness and morphed into new rules or laws usually involves talking to the right people. The goal is influence.

Anticipating an emerging issue involves reading and talking to critics to develop a keener understanding of an issue and of expectations how to resolve it. The goal is information , which can be used to change a practice or behavior before it festers into a public sore point. The change might even be significant enough to give an organization or individual a marketing advantage.

Being proactive instead of reactive

Scraping your organization off of negative newspaper headlines and reaching out to affected communities is the work of issue managers.

But so is thoughtful survey research to identify emerging issues and gentle persuasion with key internal audiences to address those issues. It is all about getting ahead of the proverbial issue curve.

Research can take many forms — from traditional surveys to broader "environmental scans" such as following social media trends, forums dedicated to future issues and bestselling books and movies. It also is important to talk with key stakeholders, listen to critics and engage your customers.

Solving a problem before it blossoms into a public issue doesn't always result in a ticker tape parade, but it frequently avoids a public hullabaloo.

Making it go away versus preserving a reputation

When an issue is boiling, there is pressure to make it disappear. A common tactic is to try to change the subject. Too often that doesn't work.

If the bottom line is to preserve or enhance a reputation, then you want to concentrate on identifying risks and smart solutions that reduce those risks. Instead of changing the subject, you then will will want to tell your story.

This form of issue management is called reputation management.

Analytical rather than transactional activity

To quell a public issue, you need to develop sharp messaging, write op-eds, hold forums, submit to media interviews and employ paid media such as TV and radio ads or direct mail.

Anticipating issues requires analysis, homework and assigning priorities. You contemplate what could happen and think of ways to change course, focusing on the highest leverage issues with the most likely prospect to erupt and the most attractive cost-benefit ratio to fix.

Issue managers don't always have the luxury of time and space to ponder the future. They often find themselves in the heat of the moment. But the best issue managers find ways to do more than fight fires. They reserve time to anticipate opportunities to remove the brush that can ignite major conflagrations.