The best time to address an emerging public issue is before it explodes. This doesn’t require a crystal ball, just a lot of curiosity about consequences.
Several years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of retailers, which included fast food restaurant operators. I began by asking how many attendees had read Morgan Spurlock’s book, “Don’t Eat This Book/Fast Food and the Supersizing of America.” Only two or three hands went up. Then I asked how many attendees have heard of the book. Just a few more hands raised.
I suggested the book would have consequences and that it was worth reading to understand what might ensue and begin considering how to respond.
Public issues rarely pop out of nowhere. They have a natural progression, starting with a trigger, followed by rising awareness and potentially reaching a peak of public concern that makes response unavoidable. Think of this pattern like a bell curve that keeps rising and doesn’t taper off.
The ability to manage an issue successfully declines as the curve of public awareness rises. Policymakers start taking note and get involved on “solutions” to emerging issues. They are judged by whether they “do something,” not necessarily by whether they “do something useful.”
Public affairs professionals and lobbyists can try to bludgeon emerging issues, but this tactic can backfire and spark increased public indignation. The smarter course is to interact with the people pushing the issue or its most ardent advocates. Listening is critical. Looking for a solution is key.
Not every issue is a big deal. However, some issues are very big deals. Take climate change, for example. Or lowering prescription drug prices and reducing reliance on plastics. Or any number of local issues such as dealing with homelessness, easing traffic congestion and increasing high school graduation rates.
Climate change, prescription drug prices, homelessness, traffic congestion and high school graduation rates have all emerged as public issues. But what’s coming next? Clues are in plain sight in books, movies and social media posts. Disruptive issues also may lurk in academic, technology and medical research.
Sometimes seeing into the future requires gaming out what might happen to your product or business. How will Amazon, artificial intelligence or rising Chinese economic power affect what you do and where you do it?
Predicting the future is more art than science. But art has its value by giving you a picture of the future. It doesn’t need to be spot on to provide a window into future challenges and opportunities, which can stimulate your thought process about what steps to take now.
Peering into the future is good business and great issue management. Being aware, not necessarily being right, is the point. You can’t tackle an issue unless you are aware it is becoming an ‘issue’. If you wait until the issue explodes int public view, it may be too late or at least more difficult to find a consensus.
Being out front of an emerging issue won’t always make you popular with some of your peers who think the issue will blow over or support an antagonistic approach, denying the basis for the issue. You will be better prepared for these intra-industry confrontations if you have solid reasons for believing an issue will burst from the back page to the front page. Those reasons come from homework and thoughtful reflection about consequences.
Passing time is the enemy of issue managers. Use time productively by anticipating emerging issues to preserve the maximum range of options to address emerging issues.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.