We’ve talked about how to deal with a communications issue or crisis. But it’s equally important to understand how to prevent topics from becoming issues and issues from becoming crises.

Welcome to the world of issues management.

What is issues management, exactly?

Like many communications principles, the idea of issues management is a simple one, but can become more complicated in practice. Simply speaking, issues management is the process of keeping your head up; of constantly and consistently monitoring topics that could affect your organization’s activities and reputation.

Issues management then becomes integral to your organization’s brand. With regular monitoring you can prevent issues and crises, position your organization as a thought leader and, ideally, always stay one step ahead in terms of external communications.

Here are three steps to getting started with issues management:

1. Identify topics that could affect your nonprofit

I have a feeling you’re already aware of some topics and events that would affect your organization.

For example:

  • Arts organizations might keep an eye on audience statistics and industry reports to see if they signal any trends or commonalities.
  • Keeping an eye on climate change topics is a no-brainer for environmental organizations.
  • Animal welfare organizations could keep an eye on municipal wildlife reports or find community groups on Facebook to see what people are talking about there.

Any nonprofit should keep track of:

  • Government announcements
  • News outlets that run stories relating to your mission
  • Similar or competing organizations

Think about the kinds of topics these organizations or publications could address that might affect your organization. Then take half an hour and write a list of these things, sharing with your team and getting their feedback as necessary. If and when these topics actually come up, you will thank your past self for giving your future self a heads up.

2. Prioritize potential topics and issues

Once you’ve identified the topics you need to monitor, you’ll want to prioritize them to guide how much energy you put into monitoring each one. The more aspects of your organization an issue could affect and the more severely it could affect your organization’s activities, the higher up on the list it goes.

For example, I work at an association of professional theatre companies and I monitor things like government announcements because the amount of money allocated to the Canada Council for the Arts directly and seriously impacts about three quarters of our membership. Being aware of upcoming changes allows my organization (and our members!) to better weather any storm that might come.

Here are some things to keep in mind, things that would be higher priority on your list. In general, the more negative or widespread, the higher the priority.

  • How many different departments might the issue affect?
  • How might the issue affect your brand?
  • How might the issue affect your board and staff, and the relationship between them?
  • How might the issue affect your organization’s financial position?

Another thing to consider is the urgency or timeliness of the issue. Consider how persistent the issue might become or whether it’ll blow over in a few days. If you think it’ll blow over you will also want to assess what effect the issue will have on your organization, even in its short life span. The bigger the effect, the higher priority it becomes, even if the issue will taper off in a matter of days. Sometimes the smallest issues have the power to rock an organization’s foundation.

Now that you’ve prioritized your list, post it on your wall. You’ve now made yourself an invaluable reference guide.

3. Monitor your prioritized topics

There are a few simple, no-cost ways to keep on top of possible issues.

Set up media alerts

First and foremost, it’s key for every organization to monitor what the media is saying about your organization and identified topics. In addition to regularly reading news outlets and industry-specific publications (both professional and not!), set up alerts so you can be notified any time something is published online.

Google Alerts and Talkwalker Alerts work well, and you can decide how often you want to receive the alerts (daily, weekly or as they happen). (Bonus: Talkwalker even has an article explaining how to create alerts).

Monitor social media

Monitoring social media has become integral to staying up to date and in the know.

Look for the Twitter accounts of thought leaders and common hashtags used by your community and keep an eye on them. Tools like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite allow you to create standing searches (via streams or columns) for things like this and, better yet, both services have free versions.

Review website analytics

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on things at home – and by that I mean taking a look at the analytics for your own website.

Note the common exit pages – why are people leaving from those pages, and what information could you add to keep them there longer? Even better, if you have a search bar that you can monitor you can see what people are looking for and then add content to match their possible questions and, ideally, avoid an issue in the process.

Survey your community

Finally, it’s a good practice to periodically survey your community to find out what topics are of interest and concern to them. This could be as big a project as an annual survey on a number of different topics, or as simple as a quick social media poll as any new and interesting topic arises. The former will give you a large amount of information you can draw on and reorganize and the latter allows you to be nimble in the face of a fast-paced issue. The seriousness of the issue and amount of internal capacity will probably dictate which method you choose at any given time.

Eyes on the prize and ear to the ground

See? That really wasn’t so bad. Keep a keen eye on your community and your key topics and you’ll rarely be caught unaware by an issue. And remember, the key, as always, is to prevent an issue from becoming a crisis. Now get going, we’ve got issues to manage!

Meg Shannon

Meg Shannon

Meg Shannon is a communications and PR professional based in Toronto. After working in the not-for-profit world for seven years she made the jump to a communications agency. When not working with clients and campaigns she can be found working on her own blog, Palate Practice, playing soccer, or re-watching Downtown Abbey for the zillionth time.
Meg Shannon
Meg Shannon