Public relations is often focused on short term gains. But issue management is one area which is typically more a marathon than a sprint. And there are few issue marathons as long and as tenacious as the campaign against Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters.
When the International Court of Justice found against Japan’s so-called “scientific whaling” in the Great Southern Ocean it seemingly brought to an end a decades-long issue campaign.
After four years, the court has now judged in favour of the case brought by the New Zealand and Australian governments and ruled that Japan’s whaling in Antarctic waters should cease forthwith. As the old saying goes, every success has many fathers, and not surprisingly the decision brought out a conga-line of players keen to claim a share of the credit, some justified and some entirely opportunistic.
But for communication professionals, this whole saga highlights the special challenges of fighting a protracted issue campaign and achieving success.
A good comparative example is the ongoing campaign by public health activists to limit the damage caused by cigarette smoking, and the dogged counter-campaign waged by the big tobacco companies. This struggle has been continuing for more than five decades, and as recently as last week we witnessed another upsurge with the effort by big tobacco to halt the spread of “plain packaging” to the UK.
Although it is rare for issues to continue at a high level of intensity over such a long period, the tobacco case illustrates an important lesson about marathon issue campaigns—namely that assessment of success needs to reflect the incremental nature of the strategy. In this way, the campaign against cigarettes has seen progressive advances over decades, even though eliminating cigarette smoking as a public health risk is still far from being achieved. However, no one would seriously argue on that basis that the campaign so far has not been successful. There have been major advances, such as preventing tobacco sponsorship of sport, and banning smoking in many public places. Each of these incremental achievements (and many others) is a victory for the anti-smoking campaign along the path towards its long-term goal. Similarly, ending the whale hunt in southern waters still leaves whales at risk elsewhere and plenty more to do.
The reality is that when campaigns extend over years or even decades, a different issue management strategy is needed. Not to assess just against achieving a single outcome but rather to work on major intermediate steps towards the ultimate objective. For marathon issue campaigns: • Identify the long-term goal
• Agree on achievable sub-objectives which support it
• Develop separate issue management plans for each sub-objective
• Recognise that multiple IM plans may run simultaneously over a prolonged period
• Celebrate substantial achievements along the way
• Never lose sight of what you are trying to achieve