The best guide to issues and crisis management

Fifty years ago, when the blog was an undergraduate devoting more attention to social action than to study, it was lucky enough to be introduced by Colin Benjamin to the work of the person who was probably the most influential modern social activist thinker and practitioner – Saul Alinsky.

The blog has been thinking a lot about Alinsky and Colin Benjamin in recent days while trying to organise speakers for the October PRIA conference on the current trends in grass roots organisation and engaging in discussions with some of the leading practitioners in the field. The thinking was reinforced by a recent detailed reading of Tony Jaques’ new book Issue and Crisis Management which the blog has mentioned a few times in the past year.

The link is prompted, as Jaques implies, by the impetus that Alinsky gave to the emergence of issues management. In 1971 Alinksy wrote the seminal book Rules for radicals: a practical primer for realistic radicals. There is quite a good biography of Alinsky, Let Them Call Me Rebel by Sanford D. Horwitt, and some of his more amazing and creative activist campaigns can be found at Two of the blog’s favourites are the ‘sh.t in’ at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport which took on the formidable Mayor Daley; and, the creative alternative to picketing at a Chicago department store when some 3,000 African Americans were bussed in to shop at the store.

Jaques makes the link explicit by pointing out that the first recorded us of the term ‘issue management’ is by Howard Chase in April 1976 and that the formulation of the concept, based on what Ray Ewing described as ‘in protean form’ before that, may well have been a response to this new approach to activism.

As far as the blog is concerned aspiring issues management practitioners simply must read both Alinsky and Jaques.  Jaques’ book defines issues management starting with the three main approaches to defining an issue – disputation, expectation gap and impact. He then carefully delineates the differences between issue and crisis management and in discussing a theoretical framework for issue management cites Alinsky: “No issue can be negotiated unless you first have the clout to compel negotiation.”

In discussing issues management  Jaques looks at agenda-setting; framing; the expanding focus of the practice; the increasing emphasis on strategic alignment; the practices’ migration beyond the corporation to institutions and governments and even to community groups and activists who use it “to counter what they see as an unfair advantage of both big business and big government in forming policy.” It is a good reminder that activists who are amongst the most fervent critics of PR are also some of its most accomplished practitioners.

The book describes how to prepare an issue management plan and discusses the interactions and differences between strategic planning and issues management planning. “… senior executives whose professional training and reputation is built on solving problems and finding the ‘right answer’ sometimes feel uncomfortable dealing with issues that, by their nature, are difficult, awkward, emotive and occasionally downright embarrassing,” Jaques says.

In the chapter on activism Jaques gives a summary, and bibliography , of the most important sources for activist thinking which ought to be compulsory reading for all PR practitioners and senior private and public sector managers. They might end up more worried, but considerably better informed and more capable of managing issues, if they took themselves out of their dominant corporate cultures and into the minds of those they often regard as inconvenient nuisances. Jaques also has a balanced analysis of the role of social media in issues and crises.

There is also an excellent chapter on risk management, perception, hazard and outrage which outlines the basics of practice in this area; guidelines for risk communication and the ‘risk paradox’ – “that the technological age has made us safer, healthier and living longer than ever before, yet we worry more about our health and safety” – and the theories around the ‘risk society’ developed by Giddens and Beck. Of course, perceptions of risk are also fostered, ‘manufactured’ as Beck says, generated not only be technology and modernisation but also by explicit political strategies. Some governments, for instance, are reluctant to do anything about the real causes of social and economic problems and find it convenient to displace people’s concerns to refugees, immigrants, criminals, atheists, abortionists, proponents of gun control and any other Tea Party-type obsessions.

There is a good chapter on reputation – a vexed issue in PR practice which the blog has long believed is unduly hyped and faddish. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of reputation could be the expectations gap between reputation and reality which may be fostered by some reputation measurement methodologies and its implications for issues management. The final chapter looks at leadership and what the diversity of definitions and approaches to the term mean for corporate social responsibility and issues and crisis management. This chapter gives some invaluable insights into the significance of relationships and engagement for public affairs and corporate communications emphasising the need to spend “less time trying to control public opinion and more time trying to join conversations.”

The book is rounded out by many excellent case studies across anti-smoking campaigns, McDonalds, animal rights, Tourism Australia, offshore petroleum spills, hoaxes, the melamine-tainted milk crisis, bushfires, social media and public information campaigns and vaccination. As well as the excellent bibliography of activism the book’s general bibliography is also invaluable.

Colin Benjamin probably never imagined that putting the blog on the path of social activism might make the blog both gamekeeper and poacher but for those who don’t have the advantage of such a start – reading Alinsky and Jaques is the next best thing.