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How do you analyze an issue

Select/inventory issues

Before you can monitor, you first need to know what you need to monitor. To achieve this, it is important to make an initial selection of possible issues that are or may become important to the organization. Take as broad a approach as possible: after all, you cannot predict which issues will become topical now or in the future. A supermarket group often follows more than a hundred issues, ranging from discussions about food safety, hypes such as veganism to negotiations with the trade unions about a new collective labor agreement. These issues are not current at all times, but they may become so (again). By making the selection broad, you force yourself to inventory all possible issues.

Ranking Issues: The Glimpse Test

An analysis model helps you to get a complete overview of all issues that an organization has or may have to deal with. This can be done using the nine themes below, such as the Smile Test method, based on Francis Aquilar's PEST analysis. Moreover, you can use it to map the environment. For an initial indication of issues, scan all news articles in national newspapers and websites about your own organization and the market in which you operate. You can then further develop this list based on internal conversations and conversations with external stakeholders.

Glance test method

  • Health
  • Leadership
  • Innovation, technology and ICT
  • Human labor
  • Political developments and new legislation
  • Risk and security
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Ecology and environment
  • Financial

Ranking issues (Main and sub-issues): The Issue Trap

We distinguish between main and sub-issues. A main issue arises from a trend development and has been on the social and political agenda for a long time. You quickly recognize them: they usually involve collective concepts such as sustainability, animal welfare, climate change, food safety and privacy. A sub-issue is a concrete issue that arises from a main issue. It is so tangible that people very quickly feel involved and start talking about it. For example, mega stables and broiler chickens are sub-issues of the main issue of animal welfare. Main issues affect many types of organizations, sub-issues, on the other hand, are so specific that the effect differs per organization. For example, state the job market as the main issue on the agenda, then the question is what the conversation is about: about the position of all workers or about that of flex workers? A trade union will mainly be concerned with the first sub-issue, while the temporary employment sector places more emphasis on the second. The sub-issue of flexible work will probably also come up more often in the catering industry. In other sectors it may not be an issue at all and 'older people in the labor market' or the Participation Act may be the most important topic of discussion.

By analyzing an issue in this way, you discover how big the issue is and in what manifestations you can encounter it. We also call this peeling off an issue. A useful instrument is the issue trap, also known as issue tree or issue ladder. This allows you to visualize main and sub-issues step by step. It gives you a grip on the subject because you literally see its layers before you. Drawing up an issue trap may seem like extra work, but it certainly isn't and will later provide guidance in properly formulating searches. For example, what is meant by sustainability can differ per company. In addition, the issue trap helps in finding news outlets to maintain attention for issues.

Issue analysis: Tracking new issues

Organizations that monitor and identify issues properly are able to take a deeper look. They can actively identify new issues that may affect the reputation of the organization in the future. We call this issue tracking. The number of issues that affect an organization is not static, but dynamic: new issues are constantly emerging. Typical signals are opinion articles about an issue or that it is being discussed in the political arena. As a result, the issue is gaining urgency step by step. Organizations that are alert to this anticipate that they will have to choose a position in the not too distant future. Unlike in a crisis, they have the time to calmly map out their strategy. Of course, personal intuition plays a role in new issues, but to provide more guidance, Robert Heath formulated three criteria that a subject must meet to be qualified as an issue.

1. It must appear on indexes such as Google or appear in political overviews. This means that the issue is resolved opinion makers or journalists has been noticed.
2. It must create risks and opportunities and therefore be able to affect the organization, positively or negatively.
3. An action group – or other group that can influence opinion – must get to work on it.
By properly tracking issues, an organization can stay ahead; she is no longer so easily overwhelmed by the issues of the day, but is at the helm herself and does not miss any opportunities. Bridges & Nelson call the use of Issue Tracking 'a special kind of insurance against unexpected threats or missing an open-ended opportunity'.

Prepare issue files

What does an issue file look like?

After you have identified the most important issues, it is necessary to compile an extensive file surrounding the issue in which you summarize all available information and facts. At that moment you can also check whether you already know everything or whether additional research is needed. The following questions can help when compiling a file:

  • What kind of issue is it?
    Describe the issue. Is it a positive or negative issue? Is it tame or unruly? Is it an issue with which politicians profile themselves?
  • What is the history of the issue?
    Where did the issue arise? Who put it on the map first? How has the issue developed over time? Which sub-issues were involved? Which solutions have already been considered and with what results?
  • What are the facts?
    An issue is often emotionally charged. This makes it necessary to list the exact facts: what is known about the issue, how many people are affected by it?
  • What stage is the issue in?
    A young issue requires a different approach than an issue that is already further developed.
  • What is the future of the issue?
    Is new policy currently being developed? Are there new developments on the horizon?
  • What does the agenda for this issue look like?
    What does the timing of the issue look like? When is policy expected, when do politicians talk about it, when will a study be published, are there conferences on this subject, campaigns are coming up, is there a specific day on this issue? By mapping the most important news moments, you can more easily develop a strategy at a later stage.

How urgent are the issues?

Once you have determined the issue stage and inventoried the stakeholders, the question often immediately arises: can and should we do something about this issue? How hard will this issue hit us? And how urgent is this issue for our organization? A logical question, because the answer determines how you deal with it and which strategy you choose. To determine whether an issue is urgent, you must take two dimensions into account: the topical value and the impact of the issue on the organization

Current affairs

First of all, the topicality of the issue: issues that receive a lot of attention can logically cause the greatest damage. If a subject constantly makes the news, is politically controversial or is at the top of the agenda of an action group, then as an organization you know that you have to take the issue seriously. A total of twelve factors make an issue topical:

1. An incident caused a stir.
2. There is a lot of attention in the national news media.
3. There is a lot of attention on social media.
4. Opinion makers are fully involved.
5. Action groups are working on it.
6. An issue flares up again after a period of calm.
7. An organization or person campaigns for/against it.
8. Policymakers in politics and government are working on it.
9. It occurs within your own organization, but you do not yet have a policy for it.
10. Consumer reactions are coming in.
11. Your competitor is working on it.
12. There is a lot of discussion because your organization's internal policy surrounding the issue has changed.


The second dimension to take into account is the question of how much impact the issue has on the organization. This concerns both damage to business operations and damage to reputation. An issue that affects an organization's core activities can cause more damage than an issue that is further away. The impact on product, sector, reputation and business operations is often considered. Current events and impact are constantly changing. For example, in the 1990s animal welfare was hardly an issue. Companies therefore did not have to take a position on it. With the appearance of the Party for the Animals, animal welfare gained more weight. Nowadays it is an important theme. The same applies to the issue of integrity. Society expects organizations to act with integrity and expects full transparency about, for example, the salary of the director and the way in which donations are spent.

Heat map

Because the weight of issues is constantly changing, it is useful to create a heat map. Such a map provides insight into the urgency of issues within your organization. By comparing the topicality value against the impact, you can see at a glance what the most current and risky or promising issues are for your organization. By giving scores to the factors that determine the topicality and impact of an issue for your organization, issues are given a place on the heat map. This creates a distinction between hot, ongoing and future issues. A hot issue directly affects the reputation of the organization. These are the issues that are the most urgent. Ongoing issues are topics that are not currently at the top of the social or political agenda, but do have potential or could resurface at any time. Future issues are issues that may affect the organization in the future. Based on this classification, the list of issues becomes dynamic. Hot issues obviously have priority. You must prepare ongoing issues well, in case they suddenly become hot (again). Future issues must be analyzed very carefully to investigate what their impact will be and what preparations are necessary.

A periodic heat map provides more control over setting priorities. A spokesperson can more easily put pressure on the retrieval of information in the organization when an issue is identified as hot: an environmental analyst knows that he must monitor even more frequently and closely and a policy officer understands that substantive action requires speed. Prioritizing is not only pleasant, but also necessary. After all, there are so many issues within an organization that it is impossible to monitor and explore them all equally intensively. Let alone take action on it. Experience shows that an organization can usually manage five to ten issues intensively at the same time. It is therefore important to properly assess how hot an issue is.

Issue analysis: pain points

What are pain points

Before you can get started on an issue, it is important to inventory the pain points. Why has the issue not been resolved yet? And what prevents a solution? Assumptions alone do not work: they can lead you on the wrong track. The pain points of an issue usually lie with the organization's policy. Apparently there is a conflict somewhere between that policy and the discussion in society about the issue. The choice whether or not you are able and willing to solve pain points usually lies with a policy department and/or top management. They are the content experts, know exactly where the problem lies and have the authority to make adjustments. For a tame issue, the pain points may be easy to identify; with wicked issues this is more complicated. Everything fits together in such a way that the actual points that prevent the issue from being resolved are difficult to isolate.

Sharply analyzing and asking questions about the pain points is sometimes difficult, but it is useful, as these observations can contribute to the solution. For example, discrimination and negative stereotyping currently dominate the social agenda. Issues underlying sore points that have to do with references to the colonial past and the superior connotation of the word 'white'. This realization sheds a different light on an issue, because it reveals the pain behind the issue; it is not about skin color, but about recognition of a history of slavery that still affects the way white and black interact with each other today. And this leads to very different solutions than if you only mention an issue superficially.

A good way to inventory the pain points of issues is to read studies. If necessary, also turn off self-examination. Ask anyone anything. Immerse yourself in the issue and how behavior comes about. Discuss the issue with experts and all your stakeholders, for example via an issue table where stakeholders talk about the issue from very different perspectives. That teaches you a lot about the issue itself, but also about the stakeholders. Because you also want to map their position. Especially if they are 'opponents'. After all, you want to anticipate possible resistance and possibly start discussions in advance. You also want to form coalitions with stakeholders who can help you with your issue. Taking stock of the pain points is also important for communication. When an organization is attacked in the context of an issue, there is no point in immediately opposing it. First it is necessary to determine what the pain points are within the organization and whether they can be solved. If that is the case, the proposed solution - even if it takes a while - can be the starting point for the communication. If a pain point proves to be unsolvable, the organization will have to come to terms with it and explain why this is not possible.

Who can solve the pain points?

A next step in the issue analysis is that your organization investigates whether it can and wants to solve the identified pain points. Sometimes it is clear that your organization is the only one that can do this. From a profiling perspective, you can then choose to put the organization forward. Then you have to be sure that there are real solutions and an actual contribution, otherwise journalists will immediately see through this and you will achieve just the opposite. In addition to an internal search for possible solutions to pain points, it is also important to identify whether other organizations can solve the issue, or which organizations can or should be involved in the solution. You can address these organizations in a targeted manner, in a conversation, letter or manifesto, pointing out their responsibility. This is a common approach, especially when approaching politicians. Together with these people or organizations you can then look for a joint approach.


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