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Issues Management: Turning Controversy into Opportunity

Show and Tell on Aug 18, 2023

rainbow and storm cloud illustration

Ships carry lifeboats. Buildings have fire exits. Cars include spare tires. There’s a reason people plan for the worst—it happens.

But what about your organization? Let’s say the worst happens, and your reputation is on the line. Is there any way to be ready? The answer is yes, with a proactive issues management plan.

You may have heard of an issues management plan before. They’re used for reacting to ongoing and imminent situations that threaten an organization’s reputation (not to be confused with a risk management plan, which focuses on purely theoretical threats).

When a situation does take place, an issues management plan helps you fix the problem. But there’s another upside to them that not everyone is aware of: these plans also help you create organizational opportunities after the threat is resolved. By taking what you’ve learnt from the situation and using it to help others, your organization can reap the rewards of a strengthened brand image.

However, you can only take advantage of those benefits if you understand the steps leading up to them. So, let’s start at the beginning.

Wisdom of the crowd

Behind every great issue management plan is an even greater team. Who’s in this group will vary from case to case, as do all elements of this process. In some cases, this could be the organization’s HR lead, legal practitioners, subject matter experts, and a communications team. The group can consist of both internal and external people, as is the case when bringing in help from lawyers, conflict resolution experts, and/or a PR firm.

What matters is that you keep it to people who are relevant (or can provide insight throughout your planning) that you can trust with highly sensitive information. When establishing members, it’s important that they’re 100% on board, so be sure to provide them with full transparency about the situation.

Then you’ll work collaboratively to determine possible outcomes of the issue.

For instance, let’s say you have an HR issue — harassment from a member of leadership. The decided course of action might be to terminate that person and potentially plan for a public apology (one study found that 41% of consumers will return to a brand that issues an apology). Then over the course of meetings, the committee would decide how to deliver the news to both the individual as well as employees and any other key publics that should be informed.

The committee would also brainstorm to predict how the fired member of leadership might respond. What sort of unfounded public claims against the organization might they make? What might they hide? Do you have access to your owned channels, and can you change passwords the moment the individual is terminated? What can and can’t you legally disclose? The committee might draft public/internal statements and steps for each of these scenarios, knowing that they might never be needed.

You might have heard the term “death by committee” before, which refers to when an evocative, creative idea gets whittled into something extremely safe due to the reviewal of a committee. Although this phenomenon can be a downside in other forms of communication (like product advertising), it’s very useful during issues management planning when even one wrong word can hurt the organization.

As a team, you should also select someone to act as a spokesperson for media. It’s important that they are given media training or, if they’re experienced, a few essential pointers regarding what questions to expect. It will also be important they keep to your key messages.

Keep in mind that your communications approach will change depending on how drastic the situation is and if the organization is in the wrong. With the HR example, mistakes may have been made by your company. But what if an entirely different scenario took place, such as a narrative that inaccurately represents your organization? In that case, consider different tactics, such as a highly persuasive op-ed published in a respected, local news source.

Tip: Consider adding additional documentation at the end of your plan, such as brand guidelines; your mission, vision and value statements; a breakdown of key publics; and company history. These will help inform your writing.

Turn a negative into a positive (AKA: Do one better)

Keeping with the HR example, after taking action to fix the issue and informing your publics (creating an anonymous complaints line for staff, replacing leadership, improving the HR policy, investing in workplace wellness training, and possibly more), you’ll have seen your plan in action.

Now, you can start to think about going beyond issues mode by considering how your organization can make a difference based on what you’ve learned. In this case, you might decide to find a cause or charity to support, preferably one that’s relevant to the issue you faced. Bonus points if it genuinely aligns with your brand and mission. Invite and empower any staff who were close to the issue and are willing to participate in this phase, along with any stakeholder allies or special interest groups.

You may be wondering how long you should wait before supporting a cause or announcing your new project. The answer: it depends on the case. If you act too quickly, the public may perceive it as performative activism. It hasn’t been long enough to prove you walk the talk, so why would they think otherwise? If you’re interested in learning more about how to avoid performative activism, check out our article on the topic!

Yet, if you take too long, the action will lose all relevancy and thus impact. There’s a sweet spot where people are still watching to see if you’ve really changed, and it’s up to the committee to figure out when that is. One year might make for a good rough benchmark, but keep in mind that actual situations could make it much earlier or later.

If your organization decides to support a charity or to develop a new initiative, make it known through a communications strategy. You’ll want to sensitively communicate about the decision, strengthening perceptions of your organization. Whether that takes the form of an event, ads, articles, social media bios, volunteerism, a campaign or so on, know that everything counts. While there once was a reputational risk to your organization with HR issues, it now has the opportunity to be an industry leader in authentically promoting positive change.

People might start to see your organization as a place where employee wellbeing is truly prioritized, and even want to work there. All the while, you’ve made a real improvement to your internal communications and operations. With increased job applications and brand trust, you’d have truly created an opportunity out of the issue.

There have been many organizations that have leveraged issues for brand equity by “doing one better.”

In 2015, Volkswagen faced a scandal after researchers discovered that many of their cars emitted up to 40 times the legal pollution limit in the U.S. Worst of all, “11 million of its vehicles were equipped with software that was used to cheat on emissions tests.” After the CEO issued an apology and stepped down from his position, the company made proactive efforts toward electric vehicles and cleaner technology. Currently, the opening line on their Canadian home page is “Electric Feels Good,” which is also part of a larger campaign. Reducing emissions has become a huge aspect of their brand.

In 2011, Taco Bell was met with a lawsuit claiming their seasoned beef was only 35% real. Taco Bell refuted the claim, which was false. This fixed the issue, but they went a step further. They turned the situation into an opportunity by launching an ad campaign. In the ads, they teased the beef’s “secret recipe” before going onto list every single ingredient it contained. This approach established the brand as transparent while promoting their food. Good move, Taco Bell.

While the above two examples were reactions to missteps, you can create these opportunities outside of that context.

In 2021, The BC Lions collaborated with Indigenous artist Corrine Hunt to stylize their orange logo in honour of Orange Shirt Day. Partnering with organizations like the Orange Shirt Society and consulting Indigenous groups like the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc ensured cultural sensitivity. Through corporate sponsors they made meaningful impacts, including raising $20,000 to the Orange Shirt Society and providing 350 tickets to residential school survivors. This thoughtful, community-inclusive approach received praise from Orange Shirt Society founder Phyllis Webstad, exemplifying genuine allyship.

These are just three praise-worthy examples of brands that succeeded in growing their brands through authentic allyship, but there are many more. With a good plan in place, your organization can keep growing even when there's a storm in sight. Remember, if you stay truthful, transparent, and accessible with every issue, the narrative will improve.