PR Savvy

What quality professionals can learn from the PR playbook

by Henry J. Lindborg

This summer, while listening to General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra’s congressional testimony about her determination to fix the automaker, I thought of the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran and Philip Crosby.

A simple ignition switch defect had cost lives, corporate reputation and profit for an organization emerging from bankruptcy.This crisis required immediate action and long-term change. Of course, it also called for effective public relations (PR), a field that has developed approaches to manage or avoid such crises.

The PR discipline is worth the attention of quality professionals, whose jobs routinely require them to identify and address salient problems. PR, in fact, is more than pitching ideas to news reporters. One branch of PR focuses on crisis management. I interviewed Teresa Yancey Crane, founder and president of the Issue Management Council, a professional membership organization for issue management professionals based in Leesburg, VA, about how the profession relates to quality.

Henry Lindborg (HL): You’re known as a thought leader in issue management. How did you become interested in the field?

Teresa Yancey Crane (TYC): In 1977, Howard Chase was hired as consultant at the PR agency where I worked. Rather than the traditional PR goal of greater visibility, a new client’s intent was to win a series of state referenda, all focused on the issue of how to properly dispose of used beverage containers. Chase developed the early concepts of a field he called issue management, having just coined that term the year prior. Although Chase viewed the issue management process from 30,000 feet and the agency had political campaign experience, what captured my interest—and has held it many years later—is the challenge of translating vision and intent into a step-by-step model and a collection of methods that can be applied to successfully navigate any given issue.

HL: How has the field developed since you entered it?

TYC: Although the origins of issue management were in PR and government affairs, at some point, organizations moved beyond messaging and persuasion to understand that an issue may indicate the need to change its actions or policies. That makes issue management relevant in operations and supply chain management. The current evolution in the field is businesses’ realization that issues represent an unmet demand and the opportunity to supply new products or services. I expect to see more issue management engagement in functional areas such as R&D, and mergers and acquisitions.

HL: What is an issue? Is it different from a problem?

TYC: An issue has the specific driver of stakeholder expectation—without stakeholder support, you will fail.

HL: I hear about issues in different departments and functions at every level. How should an organization discover and prioritize issues known to internal stakeholders? Are there tools and techniques for issue management that can be used across an organization?

TYC: Technical issues that have one-off solutions, the effects of which are contained within one area, can and should be resolved within the affected area. Issues with wider impacts, whose solutions merit a multi-functional strategy, must be elevated to corporate issue status—and there are established methods to define those issue categories. Tools that may be accessed across an organization include an issue log, issue briefs or an alert system to fast-track a critical corporate issue. Of course, the issue action plan is also likely to involve several functions and geographies.

HL: Is there a process model you’d recommend?

TYC: The model can be streamlined or complex, as long as it suits the organization. An engineering or highly regulated firm has a process acceptance and use level that’s different than a high tech or consumer-facing firm. What’s important is that there is an established process, that participants know how to access it, and that everyone knows what the most important issues are and the organization’s position, action plan and goals. Following a process allows systematic identification and prioritization of issues, guides analysis and stimulates action. In its final steps, the process reminds us of the importance of reflective evaluation and improvement.

HL: What qualifications, skills and orientations are required to manage issues effectively?

TYC: Successful organizations are driven to develop innovative products and services. They seek new relationships and expand into different areas of operation. Because these changes trigger new expectations that organizations may not be aligned with, new issues emerge and require effective solutions.

In many ways, an issue is similar to quality. You know it when you have it. Quality doesn’t just happen, nor does an issue. There are indicators, standards, measurements and processes that make these fields anything but fuzzy and warm. Instinct and the ability to extrapolate future impact from current developments are keen skills that tell a professional, "This is going to be an issue for us." Tools help translate intuition into strategy.

The best issue management practitioners are comfortable with change. They can synthesize broad trends and seemingly isolated events into meaningful patterns that affect corporate activities. They understand the power of emotion, yet embrace logic and tools to systematically fuel better decision-making in an environment that others view as chaotic and complex.

They also believe that the highest calling for their organizations—and for them as professionals—is to be problem solvers for society’s most pressing concerns, manifested as issues. Practitioners can educate, inspire and help their organizations create a future that optimizes outcomes for greater good. There is plenty of room in this field and a growing need for these skills.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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