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How can effective issues management boost the FE sector?

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The long-term consequences of the pandemic are going to pose many challenges for the post-education sector for years to come. 

From lower levels of knowledge and skills, and mental health concerns to recruitment and retention of staff and the difficulty in securing work experience placements, Ofsted recently highlighted a range of potential difficulties facing further education leaders. 

Recovery is bound to pose many substantial issues as things settle down when it comes to post-16 education, and Ofsted have highlighted the emerging trends that could significantly affect your operations.  

What is on the horizon is clear for all to see but there is a way of limiting the impact of the emerging issues to ensure readiness. 

With the right amount of planning ahead, you can nip things in the bud and stop a drama turning into a crisis. 

By plotting the way forward, you can take the heat out of most situations, help with damage control and keep your reputation on track. 

The key to success here is ‘issues management PR’. That is crucial because it enables you to identify the emerging trends, such as those already mentioned by Otsted, and prepare for any eventuality they could bring.  

If you don’t then your creativity and resilience will go to waste and your school, college or further education institute is at risk of spiralling into a crisis and incurring serious reputational damage.  

Issues management is all about being ahead of the game. This means evaluating trends early and monitoring the direction they’re taking.  

Then you’re in a stronger position to define your own narrative around the theme as it emerges and that is why the Ofsted report is an invaluable starting point. 

In this blog, we explore issues management in the post-16 education sector and how to use PR to manage a crisis

What is issues management in PR?  

The Institute for PR defines issues management as ‘an anticipatory, strategic management process’. 

It ‘helps organisations detect and respond appropriately to emerging trends or changes which could crystallize into an issue, raise attention and concern of important publics and stakeholders’. 

As neither PR people nor educationalists possess crystal balls, they must actively monitor and assess trends and developments across the education sector. From here, they should evaluate whether a plan of action needs to be developed. 

How is issues management different from crisis management?  

From bad Ofsted reports, academic performance, and stinging social media criticism to individual student welfare concerns, disruptive behaviour, industrial action and operational difficulties, we can all recognise a crisis when it’s unfolding.  

But issues are distinct in that you are afforded more time to take a measured and proactive approach. 

In a nutshell, common features of a crisis include:  

  • A team needing to make decisions without having all the facts available. 
  • Working out of normal hours to resolve the problem. 
  • Managed in the moment. There may not be a full range of options available to you. 
  • You may be under pressure to get the situation resolved. 
  • Being forced to deal with an immediate crisis can be expensive. 
  • Your principal will often need final sign off, and stakeholders may need to be consulted. 
  • Sudden media interest. 

In comparison, an issue is: 

  • Time to monitor situations and trends to get ahead of the issue. 
  • The ability to weigh up the different possibilities and plot a route ahead. 
  • Business as usual – the work can be done during normal working hours. 
  • Cost-effective – preparing ahead of time ensures a financially sensible course of action  
  • Senior staff and governors have time to assess the plan and sign off their responses. 
  • Media planning can be considered and pressure-free 

How issues can affect post-16 education 

Let’s look at a few examples of issues management from a further education viewpoint to better understand their role: 

  • The employment landscape – are industry needs being met by the FE sector? 
     
  • Funding – what changes are in the wind on methods of financing post-16 education. 
     
  • Local government – how might changes to your local authority change the way you operate. 
     
  • Changes in regulation. What changes could be imminent in the further education sector?  
  • Social trends. How are people attitudes and behaviours changing? The increased awareness of climate change and mental health are good examples here. 
  • Lifestyle patterns. How is new technology developing and being adopted in our daily routines? 

What is the issues management process in public relations?  

By identifying and addressing issues early on, you can ensure your issues management process works towards a positive outcome. 

MONITOR 

It’s impossible to plan without a full understanding of what could be on the horizon. Start by actively monitoring trends and developments across the post-16 sector.  

Look at: 

Emerging petitions and campaigns. Who is lobbying parliament and what is gaining traction? 

Bills going through parliament. Keep abreast of those that are successful and unsuccessful. Often the same issues will reappear in future. 

Traditional media. What themes are getting most national coverage and how could these affect your sixth-form college? 

Social media. How are people responding to these emerging themes and is it changing the way they think or behave? 

ASSESS 

Next, it’s time to assess the themes and trends you’ve identified. A simple SWOT analysis can help here. This involves considering the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for each issue. 

For example, are post-16 education funding changes on the horizon? This could be an opportunity to position your college principal as a leader if you have already made significant changes. But you will need to get your facts and figures straight to avoid any threats of a media backlash. 

PREPARE AND AGREE 

Documenting your plans is crucial. Lay out the potential issues and how you plan to respond in each case. Your strategy should be well informed, so collaborate with senior staff and get their sign off in plenty of time. 

PERSEVERE 

Unfortunately, issues change and evolve over time, so you need to treat this as an ongoing process. Keep monitoring and evaluating, and update your strategy as necessary. 

What’s next? 

Does your school or college need a hand in getting to grips with issues management? Our team is skilled at anticipating trends and advance planning for a range of issues and crisis situations. Contact us now for a chat about how we can help you. 

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