When Patrick Henry spoke those words more than two hundred years ago, the development of issues management was far away. Nevertheless his words describe what can be called the essence of issues management (IM) over the past 25 years. According to Jones and Chase (1979) issues management can be defined as a tool which helps companies to identify, analyse and manage emerging issues and allows for responding to them before they become public knowledge. Issues emerge, when a stakeholder has a problem with the company relationship, but a problem only turns into an issue when it moves from private to public concern (Coombs 2002).
According to Niklas Luhmann (1996 ) who states whatever we know about our society, we know through the mass media, IM used to be concerned with monitoring, influencing and reacting on media events, and thus changing company reputation in the eyes of the public (Moloney, 2000, Philipps, 2000). Accordingly media could be seen as a transmitter between stakeholder and organisation. Due to the gatekeeper function of journalists the louder voice of industry naturally has had more chance to be heard and get media coverage (MacLeod, 2000). This has led to a corporate communication which used to be a merely one-way activity in the times of traditional mass media (De Bussy, Watson, Pitt and Ewing, 2000).
The internet has changed this situation. Not only that it allows for the first time real two-way-communication (White, Raman, 1999), it has also added a new dimension to direct communication between organisations and their stakeholders (de Bussy et al, 2000). PR people as former gatekeepers of company’s reputation are now bypassed (Philipps, 2000). People are communicating not only with the company if they have problems to address. They are communicating with each other. Recent PR books (Haig, 2000, Philipps, 2001, Middleberg, 2000) work already as a modern Cassandra, exhorting companies to be aware of the potential danger of the internet.
This paper therefore seeks to explore the impact the internet has on IM. It does so by analysing different models of issues development and characterising the influence the internet might have on them. This impact is backed up in the second part, discussing different ways the internet offers for IM coming to the conclusion that there are both, advantages and disadvantages. Thus the analogy of the two-edged sword seems appropriate. The last part analyses what measures can be used in praxis to react on the changes the internet has on IM. The paper concludes by proposing further research about the stakeholder usage of internet rather than focusing on the practitioner’s side.
Internet Impact on Issues Emergence
Before talking about the ways the internet is used as a tool within a company for IM and discussing the ways it is used by stakeholders to address issues, the question of how an issue emerges will first be discussed and on what stages of its life the internet has had the impact. Several models exist which describe the emergence of issues. The situational theory (Grunig and Hunt, 1984) and the catalytic model of IM (Crable, Vibbert, 1985) as well as the Hainsworth cycle (Hainsworth, 1990) and the model by Femers, Klewes and Lintemeier (1999) try to explain how problems develop.
Grunig’s situational theory (1984) talks about the preconditions of an active and communicative public. He names three characteristics that affect how publics react: problem recognition (awareness), constraint recognition (the extent to which people think that there are obstacles that limit them) and level of involvement (people personally affected). According to those factors Grunig (1982) differs between latent publics, aware publics and active publics where the latter are willing to communicate and take action. Using this model the internet has changed the way an issue arises in terms of speed with which latent publics are likely to become active ones (Hearit, 1999). The easy to use interface and effective search engines as well as easing of finding likeminded persons (Holtz, 2001, Manheim, 2001), can increase problem recognition and decrease constraint recognition (Hearit, 1999). Furthermore the internet as a pull-medium favours active information seeking and therefore potentially reaches high involvement individuals (Manheim, 2001)
The catalytic model (Crable, Vibert, 1985) deals with five stages of the development from problem to issue. On the potential stage an individual or group recognizes a situation as problematic. The imminent stage begins when others recognize the legitimacy of the issue and get involved. When more people are interested, the issue moves to the current stage which is often simultaneous to media coverage. A decision is forced in the critical stage which leads to the dormant stage where the issue is resolved. Similar to this circle Hainsworth (1990) has developed a four stage circle from origin over mediation and amplification stage which is similar to the imminent and current stage of Crable and Vibert (1985), until the stakeholder groups seek resolution on the organization stage which is achieved in the stage of resolution. Finally the lifecycle by Femers, Klewes and Lintemeier (1999) consists of the four stages emergence, dissemination, establishment and erosion. Here the resolution does not play a major role, since the different stages are only defined by different levels of public interest. Nevertheless all three models have in common that the issue develops from a stage where it is the interest of a special interest group to a higher stage, where it is public knowledge, mainly by mass media coverage. Through agenda setting mass media has the potential to focus the attention of the public and raise awareness (Ryan, 1991). Nevertheless this practise of media advocacy has seemed to fail rather often since it is an uncontrolled communication tool (Coombs, 2002). Thus the internet has changed the way how problems become issues dramatically. Since neither companies nor stakeholders and activists now have to rely on favourable media coverage (Coombs, 2002), the main impact the internet has on issues development is accelerating the spread of issues. Strictly speaking the internet compresses the phase of issues development on the first stages and enables the issue to directly reach a stage of publicity where it can jump from the internet to the mass media (Coombs, 2002). Nevertheless the speed of emergence is also the speed of reaction, the ease with which something becomes public knowledge is the ease of monitoring and the chance to find advocates is the same for activists and for a company. Those manifold ways of using the internet as tool for IM, or issues creation, are now discussed.