The terms “issues management” and “crisis management” may seem like they’re interchangeable, but nothing could be further from the truth. They’re actually quite different and require different approaches depending on a client’s circumstances.  

My business partner Dennis Culloton likes to explain that a crisis is an issue that wasn’t managed. A metaphor I’ve heard compares issue management to navigating a ship out of rough seas. Crisis management is making sure the ship doesn’t sink after it’s run aground or hit an iceberg. Two very different approaches.  

Here we try to break down the distinctions:  

Understanding Issues Management 

Issues management is a proactive approach aimed at identifying and addressing potential challenges or controversies before they escalate into full-blown crises. It involves strategic planning, monitoring, and careful assessment of various factors—both internal and external— that could impact an organization’s reputation and bottom line. We’re talking about political risks, environmental concerns, reputational threats from emerging social issues, and everythign else in between. 

In essence, we anticipate problems before they occur. We get to know our client’s business operations and on a personal and deep level to understand how the team thinks, analyze issues and reacts to developments. Our job is to help clients solve the issues they face and ensure business success into the future. 

Some other key elements of issues management include maintaining a long-term perspective, keeping an eye on potential threats and opportunities on the horizon and how. We analyze trends, identify constituency concerns and emerging topics to stay ahead of potential issues. 

Effective issues management also includes ongoing counsel and advice to our clients, keeping them apprised of what we’re seeing and what they themselves may be missing from inside the organization.  

We use multi-level communications strategies to reach the audiences that matter on a particular campaign — whether it be earned media, employee communications, social media or 1-on-1 engagement with key officials. Whatever the mix,  we aim to build and sustain positive relationships and use that as currency in the “reputation bank” so your organization is a trusted, transparent source when something inevitably does go wrong. Because even when you have the most sophisticated advisers like we do at Culloton + Bauer Luce, it’s not a matter of it but when a crisis will hit.  

Crisis Management: Responding to the Unforeseen 

In contrast to issues management, crisis management is reactive, a response to an unexpected event that threatens an organization’s reputation and operations. Here’s a closer look at how we approach handling a crisis, which can fit into 3 basic categories: disasters (storms, weather incidents), 2. self-inflicted (scandals, data breaches) or 3. being overtaken by events (COVID-19, for example). 

When a crisis happens, it means that your worst nightmare, the thing that has kept you up nights, finally happened. Now what?   

Stop the bleeding: Follow your crisis plan. If it’s self inflicted, apologize  … The first 24-48 hours are critical. In those first few hours, it’s important to assess the organization’s options to be proactive with all of its key audiences (media/political/community), and quickly identify the immediate needs for operational, administrative and procedural or policy changes.  

Different approaches can include: 

  • Bringing in a 3rd party expert to clean up the problem, infuse legitimacy to the brand-damaged organization 
  • Convening a coalition – create strength in numbers  
  • Make friends – community relations & good corporate stewardship (though it’s always better to make friends before you need them!)

Throughout the initial phase of the crisis, your organization must be continually communicating updates. Address the situation, share what you know and what you don’t know, and most importantly, remain transparent.   

Once you’ve initially gotten your arms around the problem, the next step is to prove you mean it: Move from reaction to action.  Press releases alone won’t paper over your problems, and unfortunately, there’s rarely a quick fix. Crisis management requires sustained and disciplined response.  

After the initial triage and cleanup, it’s important to look back. As former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Use what you learned in the heat of the moment to make change for the benefit of the organization long-term. 

The Overlap Between Issues and Crisis Management 

While issues and crisis management have distinct purposes, they are interconnected. Effective issues management can significantly reduce the likelihood of a crisis blowing up. By identifying and addressing potential issues in advance, organizations can enhance their resilience and preparedness, and the skills and strategies developed through issues management can be invaluable when a crisis does occur. 

Ultimately, whether it’s an emerging issue or a full-blown crisis, our job to serve as part-counselor and part-advocate.  We work hard to understand our clients’ businesses, their priorities and their strengths and weaknesses. We look to remain clear-eyed and able to see things others might miss to tackle even the most sensitive and controversial topics, and when the worst comes to fruition, we advocate aggressively for our clients in the media and the public arena. We never shy away from a good fight, especially when your reputation is on the line.