Issues management

Issues management, as function of modern organization management, is widely considered to have its genesis in the mid 1970s, in part a response to growing consumer activism and anti-business backlash.1 Despite the widespread use of the term, “issues management” has been defined in a variety of ways. R.L. Heath, one of the leading scholars in the field, has suggested that it is a process of analysis and strategic response that allows an organization to adapt “to achieve harmony and foster mutual interests” with the broader community.2 Others have described issues management as a process by which organizations endeavour to identify and control, manipulate, finesse or mitigate elements in the public environment, whether they are social, political or otherwise, that have the potential to impact on the corporate environment. 3,4 Communications scholar Shannon Bowen, in summarizing many prevailing definitions, has proposed that issues management is a management function that strategically aligns an organization with its environment, “allowing continued survival and development allowing a mutually beneficial relationship with members of that environment.”5

Further complicating the task of developing a universal definition are the parallels with other processes, such as risk management, crisis management, reputation management or image management initiated by organizations to enable them to maintain public trust in the face of potential external threats or to take advantage of emerging opportunities.6,7 An early champion of the discipline, W. Howard Chase, defined issues management to include several key elements including the identification and analysis of issues, planning for change, and a program of action, followed by the evaluation of results.8 An essential element of effective issues management is that it helps the organization to maintain or enhance its relationship with its stakeholders by balancing their interests with that of the organization.9 It is, at its heart, a management function “whose goal is to preserve markets, reduce risk, create opportunities and manage image as an organizational asset for the benefit of both an organization and its primary shareholders”.10

Central to the definition of issues management is the understanding of what is meant by “issue”. The potential for an issue arises whenever there is a gap between the expectations of stakeholders and the practice of organizations.11 Many definitions explicitly define an issue by virtue of what it is not, but which it has the potential to become if badly managed: a crisis.12 While there are commonalities between the ways organizations manage crises and issues, crisis management tends to be more reactive while issues management relies heavily on the notion that issues can be foreseen and a program of action undertaken to mitigate their effects. By identifying and largely addressing issues before they enter the public domain, the organization eliminates the possibility of outrage, and therefore of crisis.13

The issues management process is frequently described as a multi-stage process or “life cycle” with issues identification at the first and very likely most important stage. This is the potential stage, where the organization identifies an event or condition that poses a possible threat or opportunity that may require intervention.14 Effectively identifying an emerging issue requires, in Heath’s language, coorientation between the organization’s perspective and that of its stakeholders. As he asserts, this assumes no absolute truth or accuracy of facts. Rather, it is “an expression of the extent to which the leaders of an organization and members of stakeholder groups hold the same opinions on key points and know what each other believes”.15 An issue, in other words, is more liable to be shaped by the biases, perceptions, misconceptions, and beliefs of the respective groups, not by disagreements over data or facts.

This subjective reality of issues identification suggests the importance of a strong ethics-based model of issues identification and management. Bowen argues a strong deontological ethical framework of issues management, finding problematic approaches that attempt to mix utilitarian or consequentialist ethical theories. Bowen’s research of corporate issues management processes suggests a need for managers trained in ethical decision-making.16 Other writers concur, noting that while an effective issues management structure can facilitate symmetrical, two-way communication between organizations and stakeholders, issues management techniques may also serve to manipulate public policy and compromise the public interest. 17,18 However a more balanced approach, such as the duty-based, pluralist theory of
W.D. Ross, may ultimately offer a more useful issues management model in that it gives weight to notion that the consequences of actions can be anticipated, and the effects of issues on the public interest foreseen.19

There are many models of issues identification, some of which argue that strategic issue diagnosis takes place at the top of the organization, by senior executives and communications managers.20 The building of open communication channels and the capture of information about the organization’s environment that is already available through the interaction of the organization with its stakeholders will help ensure an effective issues management process.21 Successful issues management must be fully integrated into the business as a management discipline, separate from other disciplines including communications and public relations.22


[1] Heath, R.L. (2002). Issues management: Its past, present and future. Journal of Public Affairs, 2(4), 209-214.

[2] Heath, R.L. (1997). Strategic Issues Management: Organizations and Public Policy Challenges. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 3

Gaunt, P. and Ollenburger, J. (1995). Issues management revisited: A tool that deserves another look. Public Relations Review, 21(3), 199-210.

[4] Wartick, S.L. and Rude, R.E. (1986). Issues management: Corporate fad or corporate function? California Management Review, 29(1), 124-140

[5] Bowen, S.A. (2000). A theory of ethical issues management: Contributions of Kantian deontology to public relations' ethics and decision-making. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, p. 78.

[6][11]Regester, M. and Larkin, J. (1997). Risk Issues and Crisis Management: A Casebook of Best Practice. London: Kogan Page.

[7] Hutton, J.G., Goodman, M.B., Alexander, J.B., and Genest, C.M. (2001). Reputation management: The new face of corporate public relations. Public Relations Review, 27(3), 241-261.

[8] Chase, W.H. (1984). Issue Management: Origins of the Future. Stamford, CT: Issue Action Publications

[9] Lerbinger, O. (1997). The Crisis Manager: Facing Risk and Responsibility. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[10] Tucker, K., Broom, G., and Clarke, C. (1993). Managing issues acts as bridge to strategic planning. Public Relations Journal, 49(11), 38-40.

[12] Kasunic, D.K. (1989). Issues management versus crisis management: A comparative study of their effectiveness. Ph.D. dissertation, Wayne State University, Detroit. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (AAT 8922760)

[13] Gaunt, P. and Ollenburger, J. (1995). Issues management revisited: A tool that deserves another look. Public Relations Review, 21(3), 199-210.

[14] Grunig, J.E. & Repper, F.C. (1992). Strategic management, publics, and issues. In Grunig, J.E. (Ed.), Excellence in public relations and communication management, pp. 117-157. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[15] Heath, R.L. (1997). Strategic Issues Management: Organizations and Public Policy Challenges. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage., p, 88.

[16] Bowen, Shannon A. (2004). Expansion of Ethics as the Tenth Generic Principle of Public Relations Excellence: A Kantian Theory and Model for Managing Ethical Issues.
Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92.

[17] Logsdon, J.M. and Palmer, D.R. (1988). Issues management and ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 7(3), 191-198

[18] Cheney, G. and Christensen, L.T. (2001). Organizational identity: linkages between internal and external communication. In Jablin F.M. and Putnam, L.L. (eds.). The New Handbook of Organizational Communication: Advances in Theory, Research and Methods (pp. 704-731). Thousand Oaks CA: Sage

[19] Krautter, K.C. (2007). The role of duty-based ethics in public relations: An ethical justification model for the actions of crisis communicators. M.A. dissertation, School of Journalism, University of Missouri, Columbia MO.

[20] Dutton, J.E. and Duncan, R.B. (1987). The creation of momentum for change through the process of strategic issue diagnosis. Strategic Management Journal, 8(3), 279-295.

[21] Stoffels, J.D. (1994). Strategic Issues Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Environmental Scanning. Oxford, OH: The Planning Forum.

[22] Palese, M. and Crane, T.Y. (2002). Building an integrated issue management process as a source of sustainable competitive advantage. Journal of Public Affairs, 2(4), 284-292.