What You Need to Know About Issues Management and Advocacy

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Issues management and advocacy are about communication and leadership within organizations. A 2007 survey of high-ranking public relations professionals showed that 42 percent of individuals with budgetary responsibilities for issues management report high levels of C-suite support, larger budgets, more meaningful partnerships with other departments, and better access to research resources. So serious was the correlation between issues management and key indicators of effective practice, that the authors of this survey added establishing an issues management strategy to the list of 13 best practices for public relations.

Washington Capitol building

What is Issues Management & Advocacy?

Issues management is a strategic, anticipatory management process that helps organizations identify and respond to developing trends and changes within socio-political environments. These trends or changes can then be formed into a tangible “issue,” clearly communicable, that arouses the concern of stakeholders and influential organizational public bodies. Issues management means stewardship for constructing, repairing, and maintaining relationships with stakeholders and stake seekers. Topped with advocacy, the process of arguing in favor of a cause or policy and providing active support, one can really affect change.

When the Occasion for Issues Management & Advocacy Arises

Organizations pursue advocacy and issues management when decision-makers actively seek, anticipate, and respond to changing stakeholder expectations that are consequential for that organization.

Issue solidification should come before action when an informed appraisal shows the organization can reasonably expect to be affected by the issue. Changes to local laws in 2007, for example, made it illegal to retrofit automobile sunroofs in Beijing, leaving a prominent manufacturer scrambling to negotiate for the protection of his business. These law changes were the product of lobbying by health and safety agencies, as well as automobile manufacturers. The incorporation of issues management and advocacy to stop the retrofitting of these sunroofs is just one of many examples of how important a process it is. That law change was due to a spike in increased health and safety concerns in that city, due largely to the approaching 2008 Olympics. The sunroof vendor was caught in the crossfire between interests, unable to respond in an effective way. The result was substantively negative for that business. There is little doubt that a competent team of issues management and advocacy professionals working on the manufacturer’s side could have made a sizable difference in the outcome. In contrast, the America West Arena, located in Phoenix, Arizona, gave a wonderful example of effective issues management, when it worked directly with disabilities advocacy groups to ensure a new arena would not just simply comply with the required specifications set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but in fact, would go above and beyond, setting even higher standards. This organization was represented well by people skilled in issues management and advocacy.

Who Should Practice Issues Management?

Experts have argued that issues management best suits public relations entities. Heath and Cousino claim public relations professionals best understand increasingly complex socio-political climates. Issue communication is a critical component of issues management. But shrewd decisions about strategies and tactics can be best made by those who comprehend the scope of the discipline, possess knowledge of organizational environments, and are equipped to negotiate in and across diverse organizational boundaries.

In 2002, the Foundation for Public Affairs conducted a survey which revealed 44 percent of firms with internally recognized public affairs departments have teams working full time on issues management tasks. These firms appear to do really well in this area. The survey also showed that within organizations routinely outsourcing issues management, 71 percent obtain these resources from other corporate personnel functions such as human resources and finance. Moreover, Regester and Larkin report that adept public relations practitioners “are well suited to assist in the management of issues effectively, but frequently lack needed access to strategic planning operations or a suitable networking environment where informal and formal contact and reporting are readily encouraged.”

It’s clear that the discipline of issues management is an activity that demands cross-functional skill sets and teams who understand the socio-political environments their firms operate in, and are still capable of effective collaboration.

To learn more about the practical political applications of theories like these, visit the George Washington University online Political Management Master’s program.

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