If it’s your job to manage issues, you might have been asked: Isn’t issue management really just an extension of our existing strategic planning?
It’s a good question, because issue management is basically a tool for analysis and planning. It’s also true that issue management and strategic planning need to be well integrated. Yet it’s a serious mistake to think that issue management is the same as strategic planning, or that they are simply two parts of the same process.
Strategic planning focuses primarily on identifying opportunities and threats to products and markets, while the emphasis of issue management is on identifying and addressing issues and concerns in the public arena which are not typically addressed in the marketplace. Or put another way, strategic planning is about achieving business success, while issue management is largely about issue response and crisis prevention in order to make business success possible.
There are also important differences in the disciplines themselves:
▪ Strategic planning is usually scheduled in a periodic planning or budget cycle, while issue management has more flexible timing to respond to real-time developments
▪ Strategic planning is accepted as a core business discipline, while in some organisations issue management is still (wrongly) regarded mainly as a communication activity.
▪ Strategic planning attempts to balance social responsibility with financial obligations, while issue management attempts to bring current standards of corporate social responsibility into the way the organisation deals with issues and potential crises.
|▪ Strategic planning tends to have an inside-out focus, looking for threats and opportunities in terms of their impact on the organisation, while issue management encourages an outside-in focus, recognising external viewpoints and the impact on stakeholders.
But despite these differences, the two disciplines need to work together. In fact American communication guru Robert Heath says issue management cannot have its full impact if it is not part of the strategic planning process.
Unfortunately, such an integrated approach to planning seems to be more talked about than achieved. Research among major public corporations in Britain by respected experts Michael Regester and Judy Larkin revealed that while corporate communication and public affairs functions acknowledged the importance of managing issues, only ten per cent considered that their senior management proactively dealt with issues as part of the strategic planning process.
Furthermore, less than five per cent considered their organisation applied an integrated approach to linking planning, communication, regulatory affairs and other functions in order to assess, prioritise and plan for the impact of near- and longer-term issues on corporate objectives.
These numbers are very discouraging. As New York PR veteran George McGrath has said: “Issue management links strategic planning with communication planning and improves the effectiveness of both disciplines.”
But to achieve this optimal effectiveness, any weakness must be identified and addressed at the highest level in the organisation. Only top executives have the perspective and authority to drive such change, and Crisis Proofing the organisation demands a drive towards integrated planning.