Robert L Heath. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
Imagine, for the moment, the following scenario. You are in the office of a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a major company in the early 1950s. You and other members of the company are feeling pretty good about business prospects. The Great Depression is over. That era in American (and international) business demonstrated that unrestrained business activities could lead to food lines, bankruptcies, and family dislocation of epic proportion. Tons of governmental regulation came about to “prevent” that sort of financial catastrophe from recurring. You were engaged in some of those public policy battles whereby business critics achieved new legislation and regulation. Now, however, those business nightmares seem to be ending. And you and your business colleagues have just helped win World War II. The world brought together millions of military personnel, but several countries, none more than the United States, demonstrated that the ability to manufacture war materiel is a crucial factor in the kind of global war experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.
Imagine that you are the same (or another) CEO a decade later—the mid-1960s. All of a sudden, you sense that the world is at unrest. What seemed to be so tranquil is becoming turbulent. Antinuclear weaponry protests get visibility. The USSR is growing in power. The Civil Rights Movement is becoming more determined. Labor believes that it should have better living and working conditions. And the war in Vietnam is trying to take shape. We read a series of articles that suggest that pesticides are destroying entire species of birds, including the American symbol, the bald eagle.
Imagine yourself now in the mid-1970s. Protests against the war are tearing at the social, economic, and political fabric. Civil rights has made many achievements, but more are demanded. Consumer rights, environmental rights, women’s rights—heavens! Industry and government are being attacked from every point and for many reasons. The old rationale for the sociopolitical system and the “traditional” political economy is up for grabs. Antinuclear activists are protesting the construction of nuclear-generating plants to manufacture electricity. International strains are occurring over oil and other mineral resources. There are many demands from all sides for something called corporate responsiveness, or corporate responsibility—and even corporate rectitude. So you call in your public relations team. You ask them to offer advice. They say, we simply have no clue. Perhaps we should issue a series of ads blasting protestors. We might even suggest that they are inspired by the Soviets. Let’s paint them as un-American. Let’s tell the activists who are protesting the building of nuclear-generating plants that they can “freeze to death in the dark as far as we care.” Leave us alone. We are the American free enterprise system that defeated the Great Depression and won World War II.
That scenario is more real and telling than you might imagine. During those decades, public relations as it was being practiced by many, but not all, had become merely product promotion and publicity. Starting during the Eisenhower years, public affairs was coined to replace public relations as the corporate function that would deal with the difficulties of companies working with key constituencies. The Public Affairs Council had been formed. Then, some executives, advertising persons, and eventually some public relations people (who were well prepared to at least explore this challenge) asked what discipline is needed, what it should be called, and what functions it must perform. Out of questions such as those arose issues management.
The theme exposed in this opening is both simple and complex. How could corporate America (and other countries around the world) be so caught off guard by the emergence of effective activism at the time when they were renewed in their self-confidence that they were “doing the right thing”? Were the old tools to deal with criticism and dissent inadequate or merely misused? Was something different that required new approaches? Is a communication response the only or even the essential theme of issues management? That point is made in a historical context by the fact that early “issue managers” were surprised that one or two issue ads seemed not only to have no effect on an issue’s life but likely brought out more anger on the part of critics, who thought that companies believed that they could merely communicate away their troubles. Those who supported the creation and the evolution of issues management believe that it offered a “new and improved” approach to controversy.
This chapter explains what issues management is, what its four pillars are, how communication alone is insufficient but nevertheless vital to issues management, and how the future is open to students who want to play important roles in the discussion and debate of public policy themes and bring that knowledge to bear to make organizations both more savvy and more responsive to their changing role in society. To that end, the chapter first addresses the question of whether issues management is something unique in the practice of public relations or merely just public relations. The chapter then progresses to discuss the dominant theoretical underpinnings that support its theory and practice. One of the lessons learned from 30 years of discussion is that public relations practitioners necessarily play a major role in issues management as they help management manage their response to issues. Public relations practitioners cannot carry this load alone, especially if management does not respond proactively as well as reactively. And the major way to blunt or respond ethically to criticism is to change the organization, not merely change the messages put out by the organization.
What is Issues Management?
Issues management (strategic issues management or SIM)—or as some authors prefer, issue management—got its name in the 1970s at a time when corporate practitioners and those senior practitioners in high-profile agencies were struggling to recraft the discipline to address an era of hostility. The end of the Great Depression and the victory at the end of the World War II left American industry at a high point of public popularity and support. Measures of corporate leadership were high, both for effectiveness and ethics, as the 1960s started. But this age of deference was soon to end. The national poll data on corporate honesty and ethics would plummet. From a time when most people believed that corporate leaders were honest and ethical, the era would dawn when only 16% to 20% of the respondents would so believe.
The anti-Vietnam war sentiment coupled with the Civil Rights Movement to spawn an era where every establishment institution was scrutinized and most were found wanting. Under pressure from all sides, the corporate public relations leadership crafted the term public affairs and help found the Public Affairs Council. Among advertising professionals, a substantial debate transpired to coin a name for the practice: issue advertising, controversy advertising, theme advertising. Such debate suggested not only that communication was the best and most effective response to the controversy and loss of confidence in corporate leadership but also that by telling some citizens about this matter those critics would be silenced or would stop their criticism. The opposite occurred. The criticism heated up, and activists created organizations and institutions that formed the foundation for a robust social movement era. Other leadership, especially the work of W. Howard Chase (1984), led to the issue(s) management process. Because Chase’s book was published 20 years ago, as a hallmark of the issues management movement, this chapter is somewhat of a retrospective.
To formulate new ways to meet this challenge of the prerogatives of corporate governance, leading practitioners, academics, and business leaders developed issues management through many heated discussions at the senior executive level. Tradition has it that W. Howard Chase drew on his experience at American Can Company to develop the concept as a means for strengthening large organizations’ ability to monitor, analyze, and respond to the challenges being voiced by myriad critics of private sector practices and policies. His efforts were supported by others, such as John E. O’Toole (1975a, 1975b), who may have coined the term advocacy advertising, which was offered to strengthen the corporate voice in response to strident challenges by critics.
In the discussion of issues management, we are wise always to take a management rather than merely a communication perspective. And in such discussions, management can be interpreted as manipulation. In the context of issues management, this balance is important. Management entails choices that make or are selected to make organizations effective given near- and longer-term circumstances. After some initial false starts, issues management under CEO-level leadership began to feature the centrality of management and strategic business planning (regardless of whether the organization is a company, nonprofit, or government agency).
Only the naïve practitioner or overly ambitious critic ever believed that advocates of issues management believed that issues could be “managed” to the eternal preference of the sponsor of this organizational function. Most believe that issues are multifaceted and that the playing field consists of multiple publics (stakeholders and stake seekers) who engage in robust competition to influence the direction and outcome of issues. One reality is that issues management must be part of strategic business planning. Issues management practitioners and experts such as Sawaya and Arrington (1988) argued that issues emerge and take many directions. For this reason, managements must consider issue implications, trajectories, and challenges, looking for opportunity and threat. They made the point that issues can often offer opportunity and should not be seen as necessarily threatening. For this reason, issues management was often seen by such experts as a way of thinking as well as a way of acting.
Issues management has grown as an applied and research discipline to compensate for what some believed was an insufficient approach to the practice of public relations in the mid-1970s. The inadequacy of the then state-of-the art approach to activist criticism was repeatedly demonstrated by strategic responses to corporate critics through counter-publicity efforts rather than solid issues engagement and corporate strategic planning adjustments. Instead of taking more sound responses to such criticism, many organizations engaged in stonewalling, expressed outrage at what were alleged to be presumptuous outbursts by critics of big business, and blamed the problems of society on the persons who were trying to call attention to and offer ways to solve those problems. This reactionary response that often tried to blame the messenger believed that no civil rights, consumer rights, or environmental rights problems would exist if the critics would cease their clamor.
Despite Chase’s influence, issues management was not the brainchild of any one person. In fact, his views were shaped by senior practitioners such as John W. Hill, the cofounder of Hill & Knowlton, Arthur Page, and Harold Burson. Several academics, corporate leaders, public affairs/public relations practitioners, and even some advertising persons decided that a new or renewed array of strategic options was needed to respond to and even combat the broad and resilient challenges to corporate America and the U.S. government that were voiced during the activist era of the 1970s. To review the leadership of this movement, Heath and Cousino (1990) examined several hundred articles and other publications to better understand the analysis and responses that leaders made to the deficiencies they had discovered in organizations’ preparedness to respond to their critics.
Critics of government and business eventually reshaped the culture and ideology of society in this era on topics related to civil rights, environmental rights, consumer rights, worker rights—and the list continues. New sociopolitical dynamics began in the 1960s to guide government policies and private sector practices. Businesses lost much of their public policy clout as the result of four dramatic changes. (1) Activists claimed that natural resources, found to be limited and rhetorically defined as the property of the citizens of the nation—and even the world, were to be managed in the collective interest. (2) Society became sensitive to the increasing heterogeneity of values, attitudes, beliefs, interests, and cultures, which destroyed the business-first policy consensus that prevailed at the start of the 1960s. (3) Citizens became more unwilling to act with deference toward business and government; they lost confidence in the ability of large institutions such as government, media, and business to recognize and solve problems. Citizens placed their confidence in activist groups and called on them to exert their collective power. (4) Standards of corporate responsibility changed (Pfeffer, 1981). This fertile ground fed the growth of business criticism and issues management.
The central theme that is extracted from this literature can lead one to conclude that the rhetoric of issues management examines the rationale, motives, processes, and outcomes of advocacy discourse on public policy matters that influence the relationships between corporate entities and their stakeholders/stake seekers. The ultimate effort of this rhetoric is to forge sufficient concurrence so that interested members of the general public, business, government, media, and nonprofit sectors can forge mutually beneficial policies. The upshot of this dialogue is a constant revision of the expectations the citizenry has of the ways business, government, media, and nonprofit organizations should conduct their business.
From this robust debate, we can determine a definition of issues management. Some define it as a subfunction of public relations. Without much trouble, one can find agencies that list issues management as one of their several functions. Those who do may only think of it as requiring attending meetings and/or issuing press releases on controversial matters. The Issue Management Council defines SIM as follows: “Issue management is the process used to align organizational activities and stakeholder expectations” (http://www.issuemanagement.org, accessed June 14, 2007). The Public Affairs Council defines it as
the process of prioritizing and proactively addressing public policy and reputation issues than can affect an organization’s success. Many large companies, in particular, use issues management techniques to keep all of their external relations activities focused on high-priority challenges and opportunities. (Doug Pinkham, President, Public Affairs Council,http://pac.org/issues_management, accessed June 14, 2007)
Heath (2005; see also Heath, 1997) has defined issues management as
a strategic set of functions used to reduce friction and increase harmony between organizations and their publics in the public policy arena. Issues management entails four core functions: (a) engaging in smart business and public policy planning that is sensitive to public policy trends, (b) playing tough defense and smart offense through issue communication, (c) getting the house in order by meeting or exceeding stakeholder expectations, and (d) scouting the terrain to gain early warning about troublesome issues. Applied properly, it gives organizations the opportunity to reduce the harm of threats and to take advantages of opportunities created as public policy changes occur. (p. 460)
Stressing this view of issues management, the former Allstate Insurance Company executive for public affairs, Raymond Ewing (1987), concluded that it “developed within the business community as an educational task aimed at preserving the proper balance between the legitimate goals and rights of the free enterprise system and those of society” (p. 5). The battle over public policy and value principle hegemony is best when it seeks and achieves a mutually beneficial middle ground between interested parties. Twenty years ago, Ewing defined it as a new organizational discipline that features “public policy foresight and planning for an organization” (p. 1). Stressing outcomes deliverable by issues management, he defined it as “simply public policy research, foresight, and planning for an organization in the private sector impacted by decisions made by others in the public sector” (p. 18). It can help fill
the policy hole in the center of corporate management, making it possible for the CEO and senior management to strategically manage their enterprise as a whole, as a complete entity capable of helping create the future and “grow” their company into it. (p. 18)
Its greatest contribution is gained by early and proactive efforts “to intervene consciously and effectively and participate early in the process, instead of waiting passively until the organization finds itself a victim at the tail end of the process” (p. 19).
This view, by one of the pioneers in issues management, and a former public relations practitioner, emphasized how SIM is more than communication. He also stressed that the playing field often found activists pitted against companies. However, the battles might also occur within an industry and between industries. From his vantage point at Allstate Insurance, he was able to suggest, for instance, that however tenacious and effective Ralph Nader might have been in increasing automobile safety, the lobbying power of the automobile insurance industry was crucial as a power balance to the Detroit automobile industry. Car insurance companies, among the most powerful industries in the United States, pressed for automobile safety, not only because it was in the interest of those who might be injured or killed but also in terms of the ability of the insurance industry to calculate costs for such injuries. In that case, death is an easier cost to calculate than is longterm spinal injury, for instance.
By definition and as a matter of practice, then, SIM entails strategic business planning; constant efforts to raise the standards of corporate responsibility; issue monitoring to scan, identify, monitor, and analyze issues and trends; and issue communication. The latter function, often thought of as the exclusive role of SIM, embraces a wide array of media and contexts, but it also focuses on efforts to weigh in on matters of fact, value, policy, and identification. A central theme, thus, is the effort to narrow the legitimacy gap (Sethi, 1977) between what companies are expected to do and what they do with regard to matters that affect their stakeholders and stake seekers.
Although the name of the practice was coined in the 1970s, it is not a new practice in principle. Major companies fought for favorable legislation and regulation during the last years of the 19th century. This was the period called the Industrial Revolution, or the era of mass production fostering mass consumption. Within decades, America and much of the industrialized world went from small businesses to large corporations. For instance, dozens of small oil companies were combined into Standard Oil, as were hundreds of small steel and iron manufacturing companies brought together as U.S. Steel. This was the era of the robber baron. Industrial giants fought over manufacturing and other industrial standards, including the battle of the currents. During that “war,” George Westinghouse fought Thomas Edison to set the standard of electrical generating: a battle between alternating current and direct current. Lobbying and other measures were employed to create a climate favorable to one industrial interest, often at the disadvantage of some competitor and perhaps against the interest of labor. And as it happened during the last half of the 20th century, activism of many kinds fought to make these large industrial giants responsive to the needs of customers, workers, and other stakeholders.
Viewed as such, SIM draws upon resource dependency theory, social capital theory, principles of reflective management, insights into issue monitoring and futurism, a burgeoning body of literature relevant to corporate responsibility, and ethical and responsive issue communication.
The Four Pillars
The logic of issues management rests on a relatively simple assumption. Organizations are stakeholders as well as stake seekers. Other individuals and organizations in society also are stakeholders and stake seekers. A stake is something of value, tangible or intangible. For instance, purchasing dollars are stakes customers can use to lever products and services from companies. A product, as is a service, is a stake. The relationship between stakeholder and stakeseeker is resource specific, and the quality of the exchange defines the relationship, as the quality of the relationship may define the quality of the exchange. Companies are stake seekers who need customers’ purchase dollars. Customers hold stakes, but they also seek stakes.
As well as purchase dollars, the stakes might be support or opposition (intangible stakes, but nevertheless powerful). Activists serve as stakeholders who work to use their stakes to lever management policy change from companies, other activist groups, and governmental agencies. Thus, SIM centers on power resource management strategies. It entails the push and shove of interests, seeking through communication in various forms to achieve change and concurrence for that change, if not consensus. But in such battles, companies hold stakes that activists want as stake seekers. The stakes they seek are changes they believe will effectively address some issue.
These battles for stakes focus on issues. The issues are contestable matters of fact, value, policy, and identification.
Strategic Business Planning
Each organization seeks to accomplish some mission and vision. To do so requires an understanding of the policy environment in which the organization operates. For this reason, companies are not only subject to constraints but also are given latitudes or opportunity because of the public policies related to their operations. In short, activists and even other companies often try to change the principles of public policy to influence how the organization achieves its mission or vision. For instance, if a company or industry, sells products that are harmful to customers’ health, those customers are predictably going to work to change the policies.
As such, management is the applied and theoretical discipline that works to achieve those ends through savvy planning/budgeting, strategic management, and continuous evaluation and adjustment. Each organization must operate within (as SWOT analysis) the market system and public policy arenas relevant to its ability to acquire and use resources. Each organization is resource dependent. Its ability to acquire resources depends on its social capital, the nature of the systems where it operates, the balances between stakeholding and stake seeking, and the formation of meaning that constitutes and defines activities in these arenas. As such, savvy management works to understand and manage their responses to issues that can affect effective resource acquisition and application. This process is both reactive and proactive.
A wise management team wants to know what is occurring, what thoughts, opinions, facts, identifications, and policies are changing that might affect their ability (positively or negatively) to achieve their mission and vision. Scouting the terrain in which the organization operates is necessary to determine the issues and trends, as well as those power forces that promote and constrain the organization’s planning and management options.
Issue monitoring consists of scanning, identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing issues. Issues often emerge well outside the public view. By the time they make their way into popular literature, they are likely to have been discussed and debated for months, and even years. Matrices of key members of the organization (and some outside consultants) are needed so that the most knowledgeable and insightful minds are encouraged to participate in a process often created and managed by public relations specialists. This SIM function keeps the organization vigilant and open to trends, issues, and power dynamics in the environments where it operates. It helps the organization be an open system-letting information in that can be used to manage the business plan and issues response.
Public relations and public affairs experts need to be central to this issue-monitoring process, but they need to work in matrices with other experts. Most issues are not “communication” issues. They are matters of operation that are likely to be best understood by engineers or other technical experts. They might be legal issues. They might relate to human resources policies such as employee safety and sexual harassment. Public relations personnel simply are not expert on every issue that might affect the organization. Thus, matrices need to be created, maintained, and made effective to keep the organization vigilant.
One of the most solid aspects of SIM is the fact that the better the organization is (the higher its standards of corporate responsibility), the less it will be criticized or constrained in its operational choices, and the more it will receive the stakes it wants and need to achieve its mission and vision.
The reality of modern issues management depends on the appreciation for activist and social movement efforts to constrain and reward organizations for the quality of their policies and business activities. Senior SIM and public relations practitioners know the value of getting the house in order. That metaphor stresses the importance of organizational character, the willingness and ability to know the high standards of corporate activity expected for the organization to deserve and receive needed resources.
One of the fundamental and historical logics of SIM is that outsiders seek to obtain and use power resources to control or at least guide each targeted organization from the outside. By this logic, environmentalists hold high standards and advocate their wisdom in battles to influence the business planning of timber companies. Similar logics abound, and savvy SIM specialists know that external influence can come from within their industry and from other industries as well. Applying Sethi’s (1977) logic of the legitimacy gap, one can argue that as long as organizations do not meet high standards of corporate responsibility, they will be targets for change by groups that advocate for and apply pressure to raise those standards.
Over the years, issue communicators have engaged in strong offense and sound defense. Organizations have learned that if they don’t communicate on some matter, other voices will make statements that create the “public record.” Such communication entails bringing facts and opinions into public discourse. It requires thoughtful and reflective policy recommendations. It can appeal for people to identify with one line of thinking as being more constructive than its alternatives. Such public statements are part of what has been called the rhetorical heritage, the spirit of public debate, collaborative decision making, advocacy, and negotiation. It consists as dialogue rather than monologue.
Issue communication rests on a fundamental assumption. In a succinct statement of that assumption, Lentz (1996) reasoned, “Truth should prevail in a market-like struggle where superior ideas vanquish their inferiors and achieve audience acceptance” (p. 1).
The rhetorical heritage underpins modern organizations’ efforts to cocreate meaning that guides their activities, defines the marketplaces in which they operate, and sets the standards of corporate responsibility. Rather than assuming that the ostensibly dominant voice of industry or one company can drown out others, the reality is that many advocates compete by asserting their facts, values, and policy positions. This wrangle can be dysfunctional, but in its absence, we must accept a philosopher emperor who decides cases for the key players rather than having a system by which we assume that the best ideas triumph—at least eventually—over inferior ones. Jaques (2006), for instance, has argued that proactive and constructive communication can lead to collaborative and constructive decision making. Such outcomes are not accidental but require honest effort at collaboration and a willingness to listen to and regard the ideas of others, and the use of a variety of communication channels, including new technologies. On this point, Jaques (2006) noted,
Professionalism of activism is in some respects a direct response to the growth of stakeholder participation as a key element of issue management. Processes such as community consultation or corporate social responsibility or stakeholder engagement have accelerated and formalized participation by external parties. (p. 414)
The days of issue dominance and intimidation are limited because of the quality of engagement and the power resource management skills of the parties engaged in issue communication.
The Challenges of Issue Communication
At this stage, several points should be clear and apparent. First, issues management is more than communication. Second, public relations practitioners cannot address and solve issues alone. Indeed, issues always are management issues. So practitioners can help management address and respond to issues. Third, issue campaigns are likely to require sustained communication in many venues. One of the lessons learned from the period of inception of the new era of issues management is that one or two cleverly worded and effectively placed ads are unlikely to resolve an issue. In fact, the ads may inflame the fires of criticism. Fourth, the best communication paradigm for understanding issue communication is argumentation, advocacy, contention, and debate. Fifth, sometimes one side of a controversy is right and the other side is wrong, but don’t count on that paradigm for issue communication. The truth and preferred interpretation of facts, values, policies, narratives, and identification often fall within the points of contention, not in favor of either one. Finally, in all that is said and done, the character of the organizations engaged in the discourse is as much on the line as is the case when two individuals advocate points of view in public. Credibility and character are fundamental principles of effective communication. That leads to two more conclusions. As communicators, we become accountable for the quality of the messages we help craft and put into play. And all of what the organization does and says becomes part of the message, as does the breadth of interest demonstrated in the position adopted.
Issue communication begins with matters of fact. The emergence of an issue often results from someone putting a fact into place that may suggest the presence of a problem or a call for a better solution than what has been advocated. Examining the rhetorical heritage, Campbell (1996) championed this form of discourse as “the study of what is persuasive. The issues it examines are social truths, addressed to others, justified by reasons that reflect cultural values. It is a humanistic study that examines all the symbolic means by which influence occurs” (p. 8). Campbell compared scientists for whom “the most important concern is the discovery and testing of certain kinds of truths” to “rhetoricians (who study rhetoric and take a rhetorical perspective) would say, ‘Truths cannot walk on their own legs. They must be carried by people to other people. They must be explained, defended, and spread through language, argument, and appeal’” (p. 3). From this foundation, Campbell reasoned, rhetoricians take the position “that unacknowledged and unaccepted truths are of no use at all” (p. 3). The rhetorical tradition is founded in facts because since the age of Aristotle, rhetors are required to assert and demonstrate their propositions by producing facts.
Facts are the foundation of issue communication. How they are discovered, addressed, framed, and included in decision making becomes a vital part of strategic issues communication. In such cases, truth counts. How the facts are framed counts because it can suggest that the framing privileges one interest against another. One reality is that if scientists discover facts, such as the harmfulness of a product, activists of various kinds may put that fact into play. Thus, they do so from a position that often seems to have more persuasive impact because they are arguing for “public safety,” for instance. As the company or industry addresses the fact, if they only frame it in terms of the interest of the company or industry, that can weaken the role it plays.
Platforms of fact, and other platforms, are put into play in many communication venues: lobbying, legislative and regulatory hearing, direct negotiation and collaborative decision making with various activist and other interested parties, Web sites’home pages, special reports, commissioned studies, books, magazines, general mass media of all kinds, news stories, feature articles, press releases, advertisements, talk show appearances, speakers’ bureaus and other public-speaking events, various events that are issue centered such as Environmental Protection Days, Internet e-mails, intranet communication, and on and on. Issue communication happens in many media and venue opportunities. These points of engagement are important places for participating in the dialogue. They are a meeting place where other discussants of issues appear.
Such venues are also an important place for issue communicators to discuss values and evaluations, giving their thoughts, opinions, and recommendations on such matters. In addition to putting facts into play that point to actual or potential problems needing solution, activists play an important role in issue communication as they make their case for a higher sense of value. Such value positions tend to indict organizations for some failure in their sense of what values define corporate responsibility. Part of this battle focuses on the willingness and ability of various organizations to know and implement appropriate standards of corporate responsibility. Thus, timber companies are challenged to engage in logging activities that protect species, promote the heritage of old growth stands that take generations and even centuries to replace, and protect water quality by minimizing runoff of sediment and other pollutants. Sometimes in such value battles, companies respond by arguing that their practices are designed to provide low-cost materials for home owners and to stimulate local economies dependent on the logging industry for jobs and taxes. Such typical debates pit different value perspectives against one another.
We can operate out of the logic that given the facts and the evaluation of those facts, a specific (but often contestable) definition of problems results. Given the awareness of problems, advocates conclude, efforts must be taken to solve those problems by creating, refining, or abandoning policies. Thus, we come to the third argumentative foundation of issue communication: platforms of policy. As mentioned above, some of these policy battles don’t occur only when activists press companies. They occur within industries and between industries. One of the most important—and famous—led to the adoption of alternating current as the superior form of electric generation and distribution. That standard survives today and defines the efforts of the electric generation industry. Policy battles focus on matters of workplace conditions, environmental quality, fair business practices, equal treatment of all citizens, and such. SIM is inherently connected to democratic society in which various interests contest with one another over which of many policies is best to solve collectively experienced problems.
Another line of analysis in issue communication focuses on identifications. Each side in a controversy asks key publics to join in their view of the world, to identify with their sense of fact, value, and policy. Activists appeal to general audiences to join the cause—to identify with the organization, its values, its policy recommendations, and the “cause.” It’s predictable that companies and even government agencies call for key publics to identify with them. Political parties are a form of identification, as they specialize in cause-oriented appeals. As power is an important aspect of issues management, the number of persons—and the stature of those persons—can be power, something worth calling for through appeals to identification. Herein may lie the foundations for legitimacy and the power of the legitimacy gap.
At least two general kinds of rhetorical problems (Bitzer, 1968) also are worth mention as we conclude our discussion of the challenges of issues communication. Bitzer suggested that persons engaged in issues to debate should realize the importance of recognizing the challenge of rhetorical problems. A rhetorical problem is a challenge that requires one or more spokespersons to make a statement or engage in extended discourse. If an activist group, for instance, claims that a sports apparel company is engaging in business activities that foster sweatshop working conditions, the company (and industry, and probably related industries) now faces a rhetorical problem. What must and should be said and to what end?
A crisis, and many occur in the history of organizations, necessarily creates a rhetorical problem. If senior management creates business activities that lead them to be wealthy while bankrupting the company and harming employees and stockholders, that is a crisis. If governments are not properly prepared to prevent storm damage and to respond if a storm of the magnitude of Katrina occurs, then one or more government entity experiences a crisis. A crisis requires that responsible organizations provide facts, values, policies, and identifications that demonstrate that they have the character to respond appropriately to protect interests that are affected by the crisis. A crisis is a predictable moment; the actual moment of occurrence is difficult or impossible to predict as is the number of persons who will be affected and the magnitude of the impact.
Crises can focus on fact. Did a crisis occur? Who or what is responsible for the crisis? Was the focal organization properly prepared to prevent, mitigate, and respond to the crisis? Perhaps, in fact, the organization thought to suffer the crisis might not be “guilty.” A crisis might not have occurred, or some other entity might actually be responsible. So the crisis can be contestable, but sooner or later the narrative of the crisis will emerge. Responsible organizations are willing and able to accept responsibility (a matter of character) and demonstrate how they can put matters right.
Another context for issues management is the collective management of risk. We can argue that society is formed to collectively manage risks. That rationale can account for the creation and sale of products. For instance, toothpaste is designed and sold to reduce damage to gums, teeth, and breath. Cars are touted as being safe. And in these ways, various forms of organizational communication address risks through advertising, promotion, and publicity. Organizations also engage in risk communication targeted at recommending lifestyle changes (such as exercise more and reduce weight) as a way to help individuals be more healthy, a public health challenge. Risks also are defined as exposure to chemicals. Actual or alleged presence of harmful chemicals can lead to a product recall. Recently, a lot of attention has focused on contaminated pet foods, adulterated health products such as toothpaste, and the presence of lead in paints on children’s toys. These have been associated with lax or fraudulent business practices in countries that manufacture products to be sold into other economies.
A risk manifested, such as a contaminated product, produces a crisis. A crisis can lead to an issue, what should be done to reduce the risk. Issues can lead to crises. If the automobile industry is saddled with engineering energy-efficient cars, that is an issue that can prose a crisis for the industry.
Because of the many ongoing dialogues in society, there is plenty of work for skilled and ethical communicators. These communicators are challenged to understand facts, know the best form of communication engagement to resolve the issue, aspire to associate with commendable values, understand policy positions that are not only limited to defending the organization but also aim at reducing risks and know how to build the foundations of identification.
SIM and Future Practitioners
The future is open to students who want to play an important role in the discussion and debate of public policy themes and bring that knowledge to bear to make organizations both more savvy and more responsive to their changing role in society. SIM calls on individuals who are willing to constantly strive to master facts that are vital to a wide array of circumstances. It asks individuals to think deeply about the values and policies that actually benefit society and demonstrate sound character. It calls on individuals who love to engage in responsible and responsive debate. The outcome of such debate and discourse, however, is not the individual winner but the sense of the collective good, a stronger sense of society. To this end, persons who engage in issues management are continually called on to make society more fully functional.