Stakeholder engagement as issues management

Thoughts from the world of PR

Issues management is a key function of public relations – some may argue that issues management is public relations. So, what can projects learn from the world of PR theory?

Firstly, it is worth noting that the terminology between the world of PR and projects is a little different.

In a project sense, an issue is usually a risk that has materialised and needs some urgent attention. In the PR literature, issues are something that emerge and, if not addressed, have the potential to become crises with high potential for negative impact on reputation.

Every PR text book worth its salt talks extensively about issues and crisis management. (Interestingly, they talk less about risk and could probably learn much from the world of project management in this respect.)

Cornelissen (2011) draws on the thinking of issues expert M C Healy who describes issues as having four stages:

  1. Emergence
  2. Debate
  3. Codification
  4. Enforcement

The key is for organisations to spot an issue when it first emerges and to engage in a debate with stakeholders around it. The thinking is that through debate the way that stakeholders perceive an issue (i.e. ‘codify it’ ) can be shaped by the organisation before it reaches the ‘enforcement’ stage which could be consumer action, government legislation etc.

The links to project stakeholder engagement are clear – regular dialogue with stakeholders is needed to identify issues early in that ‘emergence’ stage.

This is helpful understanding for those managing project stakeholder engagement and communication because it gives purpose to the stakeholder relationship. Often on projects, the stakeholder engagement strategy is focussed on moving stakeholders up the hierarchy of positivity so that they can ultimately be recorded as in favour of the project, with the assumption that then is all right in the world.

Of course, the process of engaging stakeholders in a ‘warts and all’ dialogue about the project in order to tease out emerging issues should in itself lead to a positive outcome. It is likely to be more effective than a stakeholder relationship that is purely about selling benefits. Stakeholder managers should aim for true two-way communication between the project and the stakeholder, with both being willing to adapt their position.

Stakeholder engagement as issues management – tips

  • Identify the right stakeholders – look beyond those who are perceived to have power and interest
  • Give each stakeholder or group of stakeholders an owner
  • Make spotting emerging issues part of the stakeholder conversation – don’t just base the relationship on selling project benefits
  • Make the conversation with stakeholders truly two-way with both the project and the stakeholder being willing to listen and adapt – aim for mutual understanding
  • Co-ordinate stakeholder feedback centrally, look for common themes
  • Agree a course of action once an issue is identified. Create a plan of how it will be address, monitor and evaluate

A longer version of this article was published in Project magazine in March 2014. Jump to pages 32 and 33.

Be great to know if you agree.

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About the author

Ann Pilkington

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy, a leading provider of public relations and communication education.  Her special areas of interest are internal communication and project communication.

Ann leads PR Academy’s CIPR internal comms certificate.

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