“Issue: An important topic for debate or discussion.” 

Webster’s Dictionary

 “Think of an issue as a gap between your actions and stakeholder expectations. Issues management is the process used to close that gap”

Teresa Yancey Crane, Issues Management Council

I like both the definition and the explanation above. The dictionary definition shows an issue as solid. The explanation shows it as fluid. An issue is both. It is a real tangible item with which you must deal. It can linger and mold like untreated trash or move at the speed of light from Boston to Bangkok. An issue can be the downfall of your candidate or your business…or, it can be the platform that sets you ahead of the competition.

An issue represents a kernel of a truth so central to the DNA of your enterprise that it can either tear down your reputation or be built into a sustained leadership platform. An issue can only threaten the core of your organization if it is derived from what you are ─ in this sense, the issue points to areas of required strength. Recalls in the automotive industry, for example, are issues because they deal with a basic requirement for a car – reliability. Seen as an example of shoddy workmanship, they tear down the manufacturer’s reputation. Positioned as a process of continuous improvement and customer satisfaction, they can build a reputation for quality.

Issues flow from two sources: the enterprise itself and the society that surrounds it. Internally, they are related to the governance, structure, and mission of the enterprise. Externally, they develop at the intersection of the organization’s plans and societal forces (e.g., a country’s industrial growth and the need to protect the environment, snack foods and concerns about childhood obesity.) The key is understanding an organization’s vision, mission, and goals, while continuously tracking developments in society.

Unfortunately, most issues and crisis management work seeks to solve a specific issue, problem or action. This approach may develop a successful response to the specific incident, but it will not remove the core concern. It is only by recognizing issues management as a platform for change and long-term leadership that enterprises of all kinds — business, governmental, political, academic and civil — can turn items from issues of concern into platforms that enhance their reputations and enable them to meet their goals.

To address and turn an issue, you must first understand the kernel that gives it power and then engage all stakeholders in an enterprise — employees, members, customers, consumers, shareholders, constituents, management, citizens, activists, NGOs, IGOs, regulators – in the solution. Instead of attacking issues when and where they pop up – leading to a continuous game of “Whack A Mole” – we must lead the organization in the discovery of its core DNA, understand how the issue attacks that core DNA and then “flip” the issue into a platform for enhanced reputation, leadership and growth.

All critical issues draw their strength from an organization’s DNA. The kernel of the attack goes straight to the heart of the organization’s raison d’etre.  The kernel draws its strength from the organization’s strength. That is why the attack hurts so much. It also is the reason the issue can be turned in the organization’s favor.

Our jobs as public affairs, communications and public relations leaders is work across our enterprises to identify issues early, develop plans to move from concern to leadership and tell the story along the way. The Coca-Cola Company of 2005 is a far cry from the Coca-Cola Company of today in part because it recognized it could not address a variety of water concerns around the world as individual issues, but had to take a holistic view of global water stewardship. Individual issues in India, China and Africa were addressed as part of a continuous plan of improvement that was designed, implemented and communicated clearly.

Water is at the heart of Coca-Cola’s business. Giving people moments of refreshment is part of its core DNA. An attack on poor water management was an attack on the soul of the company. Establishing its position as a leading corporate steward of water has been central to its resurgence – and given it the credibility to engage concerned parties on other environmental and societal issues.

Given rapid developments in social media, the idea of building a platform is all the more important. In the “new normal” where tweets and posts can move information, disinformation, conjecture and outright lies around the world instantly, responding is already too late. The answer must be your earned reputation. The challenge must be met from the high ground, from a position of strength.