Issues management

Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Showing Rather Than Explaining

Showing what you mean is often the better strategy than trying to explain what you mean. Visuals grab attention and are more likely to be shared than narrative explanations.

Showing what you mean is often the better strategy than trying to explain what you mean. Visuals grab attention and are more likely to be shared than narrative explanations.

In the battle to win over public opinion, showing is a better strategy than explaining.

For the vast majority of people, public issues are often too puzzling to take the time to understand, let alone take sides. If you want them on your side, you need to reduce the issue to comprehensible size and give them a reason to pay attention. Only then will you have a chance to turn them from disinterested bystanders to supporters.

Getting people's attention demands simplifying what you share to essentials and focusing on what will interest your intended audience, even if it isn't your narrative. Showing your audience what you mean and why they should care may open the door down the line for them to listen to your longer explanation.

Visualization is one of the strongest ways to show what you mean. An image can show perspective. An infographic can give a visual description of a process. A chart can demonstrate critical contrasts.  An illustration can compress a lot of meaningful detail into an easy-to-grasp picture. Good design can guide the eyes of viewers to key information or the sequence of data that you present.

Shareability is a serendipitous byproduct of well-done visual explanations. Some people share stories with friends; a lot more people share cool pictures and infographics with friends.

Shareability is a great test for audience-centric communication because a "share" reflects whether a visualization conveys something important to the sender. 

Sending a message is important, but your message will never be received if you don't aim at the heart strings of viewers, which is a core difference between showing and explaining. You want to explain, but your audience wants to be shown.

Designing your information to show what you mean in an interesting, compelling, disarming or entertaining way is a more effective way to attract attention and sway opinion. Save your explanations for later.

The Public Affairs Rugby Match

Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

The Republican Party has a problem not dissimilar from a lot of organizations – a voice that tends to drown out almost everyone else.

Donald Trump, a master of provocative improvisation, is surging in the GOP primary polls because of his outspoken style, blunt speech and repeated insults. Alienating the political elite has become his calling card.

Media coverage of Trump has sucked the air of the room for the other 15 declared GOP presidential candidates. Other than condemnations of Trump, little of what they say on the stump gets reported.

The party's predicament could reach a crescendo at the first candidate debate August 6, which will be limited to only 10 of the current 16 hopefuls. Trump would be hard to keep off the stage, even though his brash political rhetoric could commandeer the show.

Many organizations find themselves lost in the fog of blowhards who hijack the dialogue, often with misinformation or fear mongering. Scaring people has a lot more emotional impact than a tightly worded, factual explanation.

You can wring your hands or you can, as the saying goes, fight fire with fire. Without deserting principled advocacy and substantiated facts, you can create your own firepower by concentrating on the best argument you have that resonates with the audience you are trying to reach and disarms the opposition.

This is not an argument for a shouting match or sloganeering. But you can't show up at a gun fight with a butter knife. Opponents these days have grown more sophisticated. They rely on polling to pick the argument that works. They use inexpensive social media to spread their word. They caricature your worst vulnerability. Responding with reams of data and long, involved talking points will leave you overmatched.

As Trump's opponents will discover, presumably sooner than later, they need to sharpen their own messaging to grab voter and media attention. These people are running for President of the United States, so tell people why and how you would make a unique difference. Turn Trump into a clever bridging line back to your own key message.

The same advice holds for issue managers. Sharpen your verbal sword. Don't wander into the fray; jump in with your best argument, phrased in a way that people will listen and remember. Take the opposition argument on by plainly saying why it is misplaced, misinformed or wrong.

What have you got to lose? The bloviators will win unless you join the fight, using your best argument, the smartest communications tools and your strongest convictions.

Remember, public affairs is not a spectator sport. It is more like rugby. Gear up accordingly.

When Too Much Is Too Little

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

When you give a 3-minute answer to a television reporter's question, you have said too much and too little at the same time.

It's a question of too much information burying your core, essential message.

If you give a reporter three minutes worth of verbiage, you allow the reporter to decide what's important. If you give a crisp, clear response, you leave no doubt what's important. You have given the TV reporter a gift – good air for a 12-second clip to weave into his or her story.

In the issues management space, there is too often a belief that a windy, fact-filled explanation will win the day. If people don't get it the first time through, then just keep feeding them more facts. This is the equivalent of talking louder when an audience seems deaf to what you are saying.

Length and volume are no substitutes for clarity and brevity. You can sneer at sound bites, but don't forget to use them. They work. Sound bites are built to be heard.

What do you need to say? What is the important message to convey? What is the best way to communicate that message? Answering these questions should lead to a simplified statement that makes your point.

There is a time and place for background, context and more detail. We call them fact sheets, special topic websites and explanatory video. Let them do the deep dive while you provide the sharp edge of what a topic means and why it is important.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between being too glib and too wordy. Sometimes glibness comes across as patronizing or dismissive. Caution needs to be taken to ensure sound bites inform, not insult.

However, your energy is better spent on trimming excess words and non-essential information so you focus on phrasing the key message so people hear and remember it. Saying less is much harder than adding a bullet point or citing another fact. Saying less does your audience a favor. They don't have to sift through mounds of material to figure out what you are really saying.

There is a reason they don't sell encyclopedias on the doorstep any more. People can go online to find out what need to know. When you speak, you need to concentrate on saying something worth hearing.

Explanations Versus Impressions

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Ben Vereen went from one of the hottest entertainers in America to someone who couldn't get his calls returned, even from friends, after making an unintended bad impression in a high-profile setting. What happened to Vereen is a classic case of how an impression outshines an explanation.

Vereen was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural celebration. He chose to pay homage to popular black minstrel star Bert Williams. Vereen performed in black face, as Williams was forced to do when he entertained white audiences.

The response to Vereen's act in blackface was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative. One critic called him a "disgrace to his race." Vereen's attempts to explain his teachable moment fell on deaf ears. People only remembered what they saw, not what he said.

While what you say is important, it is equally important to anticipate how people will hear or see it. If Vereen had anticipated the reaction, which in light of the times and the occasion should not have been unexpected, he might have adapted his performance. Vereen might have entertained as Williams would have, then ended with a provocative note that Williams was forced to perform the same act in blackface. That would have left a strong impression, requiring little explanation.

We live in a world where the impression you make is a key to whether anyone will pay attention to your explanation. Trying to explain your way through a tough issue is a lot like bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Issue managers need to suppress the urge to explain and focus on how to impress. Believing that "if people could just hear the facts, we'd do fine" is regrettably a dangerous fallacy, especially when you are dueling with opponents who color across the lines when they give the "facts."

There is nothing unprincipled about stating your case accurately, fairly and with some oomph. Marketers follow this principle because they know people can only absorb so much information, so you need to claim a toehold of their mind with an indelible impression.

With a toehold in your audience's brain, you create the opportunity to provide some explanation. Without that toehold, your explanations have little chance to penetrate, let alone influence.

Ethical Slips and Spoiled Reputations

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

The FIFA bribery scandal serves as a stark reminder that corruption is a fact of life. How you respond can color your reputation permanently. Failing to consider what is and isn't ethical can be a reputation spoiler.

The Portland Business Journal reported that one alleged kickback scheme in the FIFA scandal involved a footwear and apparel deal signed by Brazil's national soccer team in 1996. That was the same year Nike signed a major contract with Brazil, which solidified its status as a "major player in the global soccer market."

Nike issued a statement saying none of its employees were aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback schemes cited in indictments against FIFA officials. The company said it "strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery."

A former City of Portland employee is in jail after admitting he took money and free trips worth more than $200,000 to steer parking meter contracts to two businesses.

Corruption can occur when an official has decision-making power on a significant policy or lucrative contract. The corruption can be by the official with the leverage or a company or organization seeking to exploit that leverage.

Corruption is an addictive slippery slope. A small favor here, bending the rules a little there serves as an invitation to ask for bigger favors and more bent rules. It becomes harder to say no. Even if you try to say no, earlier transgressions become reverse leverage that forces you to descend deeper into corruption. It becomes easier to rationalize that a little grease is needed to make the wheel go round.

The stakes for how you respond to a "tempting offer" can be huge. Failure to gain a permit. Loss of a contract. Dissolution of a business relationship. Dismissal from a job. Corruption is serious business.

Whistleblowers risk a lot when they point out misbehavior or unmask cultures of corruption. Many whistleblowers are called snitches and shunned. Some lose their jobs and, incredibly, their reputations. You can understand why many people who see wrongdoing just turn and walk away.

However, there is no excuse for closing your ideas to potential corrosive practices. Taking stock of your own ethical standards and sharing those principles with your team members can erase gray areas or fuzziness in behavior. Letting employees know they won't be punished for behaving ethically, even if it means losing a contract or a policy debate, can have a powerful influence on morale and company culture.

Your assignment may be to manage an issue. But your overall objective should always be to manage your reputation. 

Add GPS to Your Communication Channel

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

Self-publishing your content gives you control over your communications channel, but doesn't equate to access to it by your target audience.

There is great value in self-publishing. It puts your content out there. But your website exists in an ocean of other websites and won't be discovered without help. You need a GPS system to go along with your communication channel.

Guiding people to your website requires strategy on how to reach your target audience. That strategy should be supported by solid research indicating where your target audience looks for information and who they trust as a guide.

Strategies can range from paid media – Google ads, promoted Facebook and Twitter posts, billboards – to earned media through clever events, engaging interviews and story pitches.  Employees can be communications channel ambassadors, giving your content visibility from a reliable source. The key is keeping your website URL forward so people know it exists and give it a click. Don’t forget your own digital channels. Weather it’s an email blast or a tweet, know where your customers are following you and use those channels to connect with them. 

This is especially critical for issue managers who increasingly find themselves combatting inaccurate information spread by opponents. You need well documented content that people can find as they try to make up their mind about the issue. But they won't see your content unless you show them the way and provide assurances the trip will be worth it.

A lot of time and energy is spent on creating the right content, but too little time is devoted to getting the right people to see that content. This is a form of media amnesia, in which people revel in Marshall McLuhan's famous maxim "The medium is the message." It does not discount the value of your own medium to insist that it be coupled with effective outreach to your intended audience.

Issue managers can be drowned in a cascading news story. One of their most important lifelines is a well designed, well packaged website with credible information. Once you prepare that content, the real challenge is to make sure it is seen. That's when a GPS system that leads your audience to your content becomes as important as the content itself.

Don Tuite, editor of Electronic Design, said it best in an article about his looming retirement: "In the end, the channel is irrelevant without a transmitter (me) and a receiver to direct its content to (that’s you), and nothing I write has any meaning unless it reaches you and reduces your personal entropy on the topic I’m writing about."

Looking Forward Key to Putting Crisis in Past

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

The goal of crisis response is to get beyond the crisis. That requires looking forward, not just talking about how you are responding to what happened.

This is the equivalent of showing how you are going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

The key to looking forward is to show empathy for those impacted by the crisis. Putting their interests forward gives you a platform to talk about the future.

Care must be taken not to appear as if you are sloughing off the crisis at hand. You have to address it. The point is you can do more and help move the focus from the fire to reconstruction.

It is impossible to fake empathy, and your concern must come from a genuine place. Otherwise, you will do more harm than good. If a retaining wall collapses on a large construction project, raising questions about the engineering and contractor, a good step would be to pay one-on-one visits to adjoining residents or businesses. That creates an opportunity to explain what happened and how you will fix the problem, but also to ask about the project and how it can be leveraged to improve the neighborhood or solve a community issue. You might be surprised at what you find out.

Thoughtful crisis response involves much more than PR spin, which comes across as superficial and, sometimes, uncaring. Talking to people, even if you aren't able to quell all their concerns, builds rapport and ultimately some level of trust, especially if you follow through on what you promise.

This grassroots form of crisis response becomes the foundation for moving past the problem to longer term improvements, like mining the good from of the bad.

Actions always animate successful crisis responses. Forward-looking actions are the first steps to putting the crisis in the past tense.

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

Making Something Real by Storytelling

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare andAfrican Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson'sOne Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

Bryson didn't use glimmering language. He leveraged the power of interesting details to tell a story, adding a dash of humor. It is a spellbinding combination.

It is worth noting Bryon's milieu is non-fiction. He is the author of A History of Nearly Everything, which he truncated to A Short History of Nearly Everything andA Really Short History of Nearly Everything for the attention-deficit crowd. He isn't making stuff up. He is making a bunch of facts comprehensible and enticing.

The skills Bryon most manifests are 1) curiosity, 2) the ability to make connections and 3) the skill to weave what he discovers into a story.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to," Bryson writes in the opening line of his hysterical autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." He describes a "curious time" in the 1950s in America when no one knew that DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout weren't good for you.

His subject matter is irrelevant to his expertise. He can make a summer seem like a dream, a continent appear irresistible and his own Midwest childhood a magical experience. What he can do best of all is communicate.

His writing talent should be a talisman for issue managers trying to communicate complex and controversial material. Command of subject, the ability to zero in on interesting and cogent content and the skill to wrap it all in a satisfying sandwich of storytelling can make a huge difference in connecting with an audience.

Amazon Conjures Orwellian Oceania

Amazon seemingly has the pulse of everything, except for the views of George Orwell. Amazon's misquote offers a useful Orwellian lesson in citing authorities accurately.

Locked in a battle with book publisher Hachette and a host of well-known writers, Amazon is appealing to consumers to take its side. Amazon has scratched e-books published by Hachette from its online shelves, claiming it is trying to preserve the best value for its reader-customers. Hachette and members of Authors United counter that Amazon is flexing its muscle to seize more profit from book sales at the expense of booksellers, publishers and authors.

In addition to suggesting talking points for its supportive reader-consumers, Amazon cited Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-four that described a world where people were convicted of thought crimes. The behemoth quoted Orwell as urging publishers to suppress paperbacks.

The quotation may have been more telling than Amazon's writers realized. In the superstate of Oceania, the Ministry of Truth was charged with rewriting past newspaper articles. What Orwell actually said was that the advent of paperback books was a boon for readers, but not so good for publishers. "The cheaper books become," Orwell said, "the less money is spent on books." He added, readers could use the savings to buy two tickets to the movies.

Insider Dope on Digital Health

Leaked New York Times report provides insight into how to achieve digital health by finding an audience, making a personalized connection and pursuing a strategy based on viewers, not you.Many people puzzle over how to prosper online and now a leaked internal report from the New York Times provides useful insight on "digital health."

Some of the key insights include the need to go find your audience, the value of fresh content and the importance of packaging your material. There also is a section on drawing back the curtains on your operation to establish a more personal connection with viewers. Perhaps the most fundamental insight is that digital outreach will flounder without a clear strategy.

None of these insights represent radical revelations. But they add weight to the importance of these actions to digital success based on the direct, high-profile experiences of one of the major digital content generators in the nation. 

Issues Beyond Defense

A leaked audiotape threatens to turn LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling into a pariah. Actually, his long-held views on blacks are what paved his path to becoming a pariah. 

As offensive as the taped remarks are — and they could be offensive enough to force Sterling out of the NBA — the real offense lies in the viewpoint and attitude that prompted Sterling to make the racist comments.

Former Clippers player Baron Davis tweeted that the views expressed on tape by Sterling are no different than the views he displayed when Baron was on the team. 

It seems like an odd choice for Sterling to own a professional basketball team made up of mostly African-American players. If he doesn't like blacks and doesn't want them to come to Clippers games, then why own the team?

As a lot of prominent people have discovered — remember presidential candidate Mitt Romney writing off 47 percent of the electorate at a fundraiser for the elite 1 percent? — what you really feel will sooner or later surface in what you actually say.

Deeply held feelings are not something you can manage. They control you. 

Training for a Marathon Issue

Most issues management advice centers on dealing with crisis, but most issues drag on for years, requiring strategies for a marathon, not a sprint.

Training for a marathon involves training for different slices of the race. How you run the first five miles is a lot different than how you run the last five. There is a reason elite marathon runners include sprinting in their training regimen.

Translating that thought into the context of managing an issue means having a long-term objective, as well as shorter-term objectives. You also may need one or more crisis plans for that mid-race leg cramp.

Marathon issues management plans apply to long-term projects that take years to complete and to complex, contentious issues that take time to resolve, such as the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Protracted issues and long lead-time projects face many ups and downs, which can occur because of economic cycles or catalytic events. There also is give-and-take as each side unleashes its strategy, which calls for a response. Managing an issue in this environment demands more than an A to B plan.

Make Your Words Ring

Public affairs issues can be complex, which puts the burden on you to make your points clearly, crisply and persuasively.Communicating about a complex public issue is difficult enough without complicating the challenge with a welter of words. Crisp thinking, lean language and engaging tools are better suited to this public affairs job.

The key is to put yourself into the shoes of your target audience and frame what you say so it anticipates and answers their questions and explains why they should care.

It is tempting to write everything you know rather than zero in on significant benefits to your audience and the larger community. Your audience most likely is uninterested in a college lecture on your subject. Give them your research-tested key messages, while offering easy ways to access deeper information for those who want to know more.

The Utility of a Fact Magnet

Sherlock Holmes claimed he saw no more than anyone else. He just knew what he saw. It wasn't the fruit of intuition. it was the result of training his brain to see more than the superficial.

The skill of seeing deeper — and understanding what you are see — is essential to effective public affairs work. Here are some tips to sharpen your wits:

Soak Up Information

In the rush to get a project approved or an idea planted, we are eager to tell our story. We should be just as eager to find out as many facts as possible before we launch our project or give root to our idea.

Holmes appeared like a walking encyclopedia of seemingly random facts. But in reality his mind was conditioned to absorb what he observed — or smelled or touched. He widened his range of experience by deepening his grasp of the obvious.

Being a fact magnet is a great trait when trying to piece together the mystery of why your project or idea has opponents and what it will take to abate their opposition.

Look for Connections The deductive powers exhibited by Holmes are legendary. Some oddly attribute his deductive skill as intuition. It was anything but. His powers of deduction relied on connecting the dots.

Comedic Keys to Getting Some Respect

Comedians employ great timing and technique to charm audiences and make them laugh. Issue managers should follow their example in talking to and persuading their target audiences.Great comedians use great timing and technique to get their audiences to laugh. Issue managers need to follow their example to get their target audiences to pay attention.

Here are some comedic lessons for effective issues management:

Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Rodney Cohen, was a walking one-liner ("I bought my oldest boy a BB gun for Christmas. I got my other boy a T-shirt with a bulls-eye.") But he is best known for his recurring riff, "I don't get no respect." That catchphrase catapulted his stymied Catskills career into major movie roles, television appearances and stand-up routines at top comedy venues.

Lesson for issue managers — find a catchphrase that captures your point of view and use it relentlessly.

Framing an Issue, Changing a Mind

How would you argue for scrapping Oregon's iconic Bottle Bill or sacrificing personal privacy to keep the Internet free? That was the challenge my Willamette University MBA students faced as they learned the skill of issue framing.

Effective framing is critical to give people a quick, memorable way to see an issue with your point of view. It is an advocacy tool that plays a fundamental role in issues management, in congealing the views of a broader group and even in changing people's minds.

Here are some of the best issue frames for retiring the venerable Oregon Bottle Bill and its 5-cent redemption fee and having beverage containers collected curbside along with other recyclable material instead of returned to grocery stores:

  • "Kick your cans to curbside."

  • "In recycling we trust."

  • "Ban the Bottle Bill. Recycle instead."

  • "Recycle at the curb, the way GREEN was intended."

  • "Curbside recycling. A simpler choice for you. A cost savings for all."

  • "Kick the Bottle Bill to curbside. Don't pay twice to recycle responsibly."

  • "Save your nickel. Recycle at curbside."

Pope Francis and Issues Management

Okay, I was just kidding about applying for the job of Pope. But I would like to apply for the job of issues manager, which is a position Pope Francis should create right away.

The former Argentine cardinal of Italian descent has created an appealing first impression with both Catholics and non-Catholics. But that won't shield him from enormous challenges ranging from sexual abuse to financial mismanagement to eroding congregations in Western Europe to restive congregations in the United States.

The conclave of cardinals that chose Pope Francis are banking on the evangelical zeal stirred by the first Vicar of Christ from the Americas and the Global South, which are now the bedrock of the Catholic Church. However, evangelism isn't the answer to the Church's problems any more than talking louder is the way to silence critics.

Pope Benedict XVI made headlines by tweeting on an iPad. But using social media is a tactic, not a strategy.

Pope Francis faces a sea of people, both in and out of his religious flock, who are more cynical and distrustful. His challenge is to find ways to engage people and rebuild trust, much like anyone employed in the business of issues management.

That won't be easy because some of the issues to manage include the role of women in the church, homosexuality and gay marriage, a shrinking clergy, contraception and abortion and economic justice, a topic Pope Francis is already well versed on.

Words Aren't Dead

Words play an important role in conveying meaning, which hasn't diminished with the rise of visual communications.In a world increasingly dominated by visual imagery, some wonder if written expression is dead. Hardly. Words remain powerful, especially when used correctly by writers and speakers who know how to frame language to paint pictures, to turn your words into powerful swords.

Nowhere is the mastery of words more important than in managing a sensitive public issue. Knowing what to say and how to say it can spell the difference between understanding and contempt and, ultimately, between success and failure.

Here are some tips on how to shape your words:

1. Use research. You know what you mean, but your audience may interpret your words very differently and take a different meaning from them. To understand how people react to your words, test them in focus groups, whether live or online. Your audience may find what you too full of jargon or too dense to comprehend. Focus groups can reveal the words or approaches that enable an audience to grasp what you want to say. Survey research is invaluable in zeroing in on the best arguments to use that change how people view a subject.