Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

1.  Routinely take time to review your issue vulnerabilities. Restaurants, grocery stores and food producers constantly need to pay attention to food security issues. Manufacturers should be concerned about industrial spills. Hospitals and medical providers should fret about health care gone bad. Whatever the area of concern, identify the vulnerability and be prepared to respond if a problem occurs.

2.  After you identify your organization's vulnerabilities, evaluate them based on the probability of a problem occurring and the cost to avoid the problem. The best way to avoid a public issue is to fix the problem that could cause it. For problems you can't fix, think about how you would respond to ensure safety and reassure customers or stakeholders.

3.  Create a crisis response plan based on the specific scenarios your organization could face. Too many crisis plans are based on templates pulled off the shelf and only prepare you generally for the kind of crisis you could experience. Your scenario-based plan should walk through the steps you need to take — such as how to collect accurate information about what's happening, funnel media calls to a designated spokesperson and have one or more trained spokespersons ready. Don't neglect internal communications during this stage. Well-informed employees can help to stop misinformation and rumors. 

4.  Coordinate with local emergency responders. For example, if your operation uses hazardous materials, make sure firemen, paramedics and nearby hospitals know what those substances are and how to handle their exposure. This knowledge can mean the difference between life and death  — by having an emergency room team blow off rather than rinse off  a toxic agent or quickly treating patients instead of testing to verify what they were exposed to in an incident.

5.  Engage neighbors and critics. Find out their fears and what's makes them mad. See if you can mitigate the factors that fuel their fear and anger.

6.  Build rapport with the news media that would cover an incident involving your organization. This could involve taking a reporter, editor or bloggers on a tour to show the steps you have taken to prevent a workplace mishap and the plans in place to deal with a problem if one occurs. The key concept is to tell your side of the story, preferably before all hell breaks loose.

7.  Tell the truth and be prepared to be forthright. In the Internet age, even little slip-ups can become giant kerfuffles, so get over the idea that people won't notice. Overall, it is better for people to see you owning a problem and dealing with it. That builds trust. Hiding in the wings creates suspicion.

8.  Pay attention to what's being said about you in the media and online. You can have a public issue without a problem. That may require you to call a reporter or step into an online conversation and state your facts, with credible back up. Your fans and customers will have a hard time defending you without the facts.