How to communicate emerging issues before they pose a risk

How to communicate emerging issues before they pose a risk

The leading factor that seems to bring public distrust of industry is a lack of transparency.  The public is leery of firms that don’t appear forthright with information and are not telling them all they know about an issue.

A good example of this is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  When the use of GMO crops first came to the public eye, there was outrage.  Cries of Franken food and environmental group protests were prevalent.  However, GMO crops have the possibility to address food shortages by being resistant to bad weather, insects, or viruses.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it makes you wonder if the companies that developed these GMO crops had an emerging issues management program and did they see the outrage coming?  Could they have been more transparent?  Would it have been possible to have reached out to the opposition groups and share data?  I don’t have the answers to this, but a robust emerging issues process would have given this issue a better chance of not being the firestorm that it was.

Emerging Issues Process

It is possible to get signals on emerging issues that can result in business risk and appropriately influence its development.  An issue takes a certain path before it becomes a regulation or a public relations nightmare.  There are opportunities to address issues when they are in the “anticipatory” stage.  Monitoring the warning signs coming from NGO reports, blogs, Web postings, and research reports is imperative to getting a read on developing business risk.

Emerging issues must be put through a filter that considers

  1. Potential business impact (both financial and reputational) and
  2. The time it will take to become a “crisis” and hit the public in the form of a news report or a regulation.

Resources, such as the commissioning of teams of experts to study and recommend actions to management, should be deployed for the issues with the greatest potential to impact the business.  Actions are most effective if they occur in the early stages of the chart in Figure 3.2, the Anticipatory stage.

Emerging Issues Process

Some of the outcomes of an effective emerging issues process would include

  • Commissioning research on topics to develop science
  • Papers developed and posted in peer review scientific journals to develop the science on the new issue
  • Presentations of data and perspectives at scientific conferences
  • White papers that discuss the issue and what the organization’s understanding and positions are on the issue
  • Communications in the form of meetings with NGOs or government agencies to share knowledge and points of view on issues
  • Development of company guidelines and standards

An emerging issues process must have a strong connection to the company’s government affairs group because they see what legislatures are considering first.  Granted, this is much further down the path toward an issue becoming law, but it is critical to get sound science principles front and center when regulations are being formed.  Working with legislatures in the earliest stages possible is also critical to prevent unnecessary regulatory burdens that do not add value.

Examples of Emerging Issues

What types of issues are being monitored by companies today that can have significant business risk in the future?  It depends a lot on the type of industry, but there are some issues that can affect quite a few different companies.

At Johnson & Johnson we initiated an environmental, health & safety (EHS) emerging issues process in 1998, and it has been an extremely helpful process for evaluating the landscape and influencing potential regulation and mitigating risk.  In the formative days of the Emerging Issues Committee, we tagged such topics as the use of PVC, endocrine disrupting compounds, and the availability of fresh water.  Over time, other topics that surfaced as significant issues included the presence of very small concentrations of pharmaceuticals and consumer products in water, nanotechnology, biomonitoring, and one-off chemicals being pressured such as Bisphenol A, triclosan, parabens, phthalates, and others.

I can draw on my own experience to share a few examples of how an emerging issues process works.  Let’s take PVC; when it first came on our radar, there were no regulations prohibiting its use. However, environmental groups were petitioning companies to stop using PVC because they claimed it was the worst plastic because of manufacturing and end-of-life concerns.  Work on this issue resulted in the development of studies, a white paper position on PVC, and eventually the adoption of a public-facing sustainability goal to significantly reduce and, in some uses, completely eliminate PVC from company packaging (to date, thousands of tons of PVC have been removed from Johnson & Johnson packaging).  This approach has paid dividends because our customers are asking for products and packages free of PVC, and we are ahead on this issue because of the emerging issues process.

This post contains an excerpt of Greener Products: The Making and Marketing of Sustainable Brands by Al Iannuzzi. For more examples of how companies can successfully communicate on emerging issues – and access to a complete system for green marketing from an internationally-recognized expert – take advantage of this special offer: Buy direct and save! Use Promo code AQL50 and save 20% plus free shipping at

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