5 Tips to Take Control of a Brewing Issue
On any given day there are many stories in the media about wrongdoings or allegations against a person or company that threatens not only their reputation but also their future. Accountant accused of fraud, contaminated product, inappropriate comments made by staff, are just a few events that can unwillingly push an organization into the spotlight.
But guess what? Rarely do these issues come out of nowhere. There are often warning signs that are ignored along the way or comments swept under the rug out of fear of how to handle the issue.
Having worked in public relations for over 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time working in issues management. These issues have ranged from events that garnered headlines around the world to localized issues that, though limited to local coverage, still threatened to bankrupt the company.
Regardless of the size of the issue, there are many common themes that emerge and ways to go from reactive to proactive in issues management.
Manage your communications
Emails are often a main culprit for information being leaked. It’s amazing how easy it is to hit the forward button. To limit the amount of people who know about an issue, minimize emails. If you need to use emails, be aware of who is being cced and NEVER reply all to emails (as new people may have been unknowingly added to the chain).
In one issue I was brought into, a manager was replying all to emails, not realizing a newspaper reporter had been cced at some point in the exchange by a disgruntled stakeholder. From that point on, all emails on this confidential issue included the reporter. By the time I was asked to offer support, there was nothing to be done as all the details had been shared with the reporter, including highly sensitive information that, under normal circumstances, would have been protected by privacy legislation.
But it was now too late to manage the issue, and avoid legal proceedings. All because of something as simple as reply all.
For this reason, I encourage face-to-face meetings whenever possible, where all the key players are brought together. This way all the issues can be discussed in a confidential setting, without worrying about misunderstandings over email (remember 85 percent of communications is non-verbal) and different views heard. It is important to include all players that may have information or a role to play in understanding or managing the issue – regardless of job titles.
Know who is in charge
At the early stage, get clarity (and make sure everyone knows it) on who is the lead from your organization. This is the person who will be the final decision maker on any information that is shared with stakeholders, employees and the media. Don’t assume your CEO is the lead, as they may be less familiar with the issue and its complexities.
Also determine who will be involved in managing the issue. For larger organizations this may include your company lawyer, communications manager, human resources manager and any other relevant staff. For small companies or individuals, it means reaching out to build your team and get help! Now isn’t the time to penny pinch, as an issue that is handled poorly can cost you a lot more money than bringing in professional help at the early stages.
Develop a strategy
Once you’ve gathered your team together, roll up your sleeves and start figuring out who needs to know what and when. Is there information that can be released now to put some water on the fires? Do you need to provide your stakeholders with an update, and which ones?
Determine what policies/procedures/laws apply as you can get in more hot water by not fully understanding, or following these requirements. Consult with the necessary professionals to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
If your issue has already gone public, how can the story grow? What is the next shoe to drop? Map out the potential stories that can develop from this issue and start developing a strategy to get in front of them. Sometimes this can be done by releasing all of the information you have to the media to ensure there are no more hidden stories (if your lawyer, accountant or other professional is certain it won’t create new problems).
Identify your spokesperson
Even if you have no intentions of talking to the media and your issue is not yet public, you still need to identify the ONE person who will be your spokesperson. And make sure everyone in your organization and key stakeholders are aware (once the issue is public).
Your spokesperson does not need to be your issues management team lead. Rather, your spokesperson needs to be someone who is comfortable, and credible, when speaking to staff, board members or the media. Ideally, you will make sure this person has media training before they do a media interview.
Don’t be complacent
Just because your issue hasn’t come to light, doesn’t mean it will stay in the dark. It could take weeks, months or years. In an ethical manner, how can you resolve this issue? If you can’t, would you be able to release the information yourself so you are proactive in bringing it to light versus scrambling to respond once it’s gone public?
Be warned about delaying in releasing the facts, as the facts are facts and will likely come out at some point. You only need to look at the #metoo movement to see how 20 year old incidents can resurface (in this case, rightfully so).
If nothing else, please remember that issues management is a team effort. No one can do it alone. It is also not about spinning, managing or manipulating. Being open, honest and transparent is often the best course of action as it prevents skeletons falling out of your closet over weeks, months and years.
Also, make sure you identify the issues early and get them on the table for discussion. This will help you take control of your story, anticipate reaction, and eliminate surprises.
If you want to learn more about issues management – going from reactive to proactive, check out my online training and step-by-step guide. Learn how to get ahead of an issue before it grows legs and runs ahead of you.