By Tony Jaques
It’s a major mistake to treat issue and crisis as interchangeable terms. Not only do they have very distinct meanings, but they need a different management response.
Of course they are closely related. Issues can be the warning signs that a crisis is possible. And issue management can be regarded as a powerful tool for crisis prevention. In fact a crisis has been known to be described as an issue that WASN’T managed.
But the reality is that issues and crises are very different in nature and need to be managed in different ways. The difference in nature can be illustrated by this analogy: Issue management is steering the ship out of troubled waters. Crisis management is trying to save the ship after it has struck and iceberg. In other words, it would make no sense at all to be changing course to avoid icebergs if the ship is already sinking and people are drowning.
The 8 key categories of issue management vs. crisis management
In a management context, that difference, and why it is important, falls under eight key categories.
Issue management is designed to allow you to explore all possible choices, weigh the benefits of each option, and make an informed decision. Typically the more you explore the issue the more possible choices open up. For example you might analyse the communication benefits of a media release versus a press conference versus a one-on-one interview and the options of newspaper versus radio versus television versus social media. In a crisis the choices become fewer rather than more as the situation develops. When a television news crew and the media pack are waiting outside your door, the options of media release versus a press conference versus a one-on-one interview no longer seem to apply.
When facing an issue you can research all the facts, analyse the views of key stakeholders, and obtain independent expert opinion to ensure nothing has been overlooked. In a crisis you often have to make decisions without knowing all the facts, when it is still unclear exactly what happened and why, let alone who was responsible and what it will cost. But you still have to go with that you do know.
Closely related to choice is the question of time. In issue management you usually have time to fully assess and make the best decision. In a crisis you are frequently under pressure to make a decision right now. In fact the best decision might be the one you should have made 30 minutes ago.
When you are facing an issue, potential cost is an important consideration. It might, for example, be cheaper to simply cease manufacturing a troublesome product than to publicly defend the product or to implement restrictive new regulatory requirements. However it is recognised that as an issue deteriorates potential costs tend to increase. Your own issue management plan, implemented in your own time frame, will generally be less expensive than the plan imposed on you by regulators. By contrast, cost is usually not an immediate consideration when facing a crisis. If heavy equipment is needed to rescue men from a mine collapse; or if you have to undertake costly medical tests; or if you need to hire a bulldozer to stop leaking chemicals reaching a river; no-one will say “but there’s no provision for that in this year’s budget.” Cost in a crisis is most often a secondary consideration. It’s only when the crisis is over that lawyers and accountants start to argue about the dollars.
Issue management is a normal executive activity, done according to schedule in office hours while business continues. A crisis, by definition, is outside normal experience, it causes top executives to drop all other priorities, and it may severely disrupt continuity of the organization’s core business.
Issues can extend over months, years or even decades. Take for example the issue of anti-smoking, or the campaign against whaling. Crises generally have a more explicit time frame and eventually come to an end. Although it may not seem like it at the time to the people involved crises, like emergencies, do tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end. However the impact of the crisis, particularly financial or reputational, may persist for much longer. Think of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
An issue is an identified event or trend which could have a significant impact on the organization. That impact is often measured in terms such as market share, reputation, community concern, licence to operate, recruitment, financial cost, regulatory compliance, stock price, capacity to retain and expand business, and so on. Some of those same impacts may apply in the longer run to a crisis, but much more importantly a genuine crisis is an event which has already happened and threatens life, property or the environment, or threatens the capacity of the organization to carry on business or achieve its strategic objectives.
It’s when you consider outcomes that the difference between an issue and a crisis becomes most stark. The purpose of issue management is to identify potential problems early and develop proactive plans to work towards planned outcomes which are positive for the organization. By contrast, despite the theorists who claim that a crisis is both a threat and opportunity, the reality is that a crisis typically endangers the entire organization, and the primary objective is to minimise damage and help the organization survive. In other words, not planning to avoid danger at sea, but scrambling desperately to save the ship after it has struck an iceberg.
Wanna learn more about successful issues management? Listen to episode #027 of The Crisis Intelligence Podcast, available on iTunes and Stitcher.
Tony Jaques is an Australian-based consultant working in the areas of issues, crises and risk communication. He writes the regular e-newsletter Managing Outcomes and is author of the new book Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford University Press, 2014)