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What is a corporate issue? As interest in "issues management" (IM) has grown (Ansoff, 1980; Austrom & Lad, 1989; Buchholz, 1982; Greening, 1992; Heath & Nelson, 1986; Wartick, 1988; Wartick & Rude, 1986), this question has not been answered adequately. IM has been defined as "the process by which the corporation can identify, evaluate and respond to those social and political issues which may impact significantly upon it'" (Johnson, 1983, p. 22), and considerable work has been completed in the areas of issues identification and issues interpretation (e.g., Ansoff, 1975; Dutton, Fahey, & Narayanan, 1983; Dutton & Ottensmeyer, 1987; Kiesler & Sproull, 1982; Milliken, 1990), issues evaluation and categorization (e.g., Bartha, 1983; Bigelow, Fahey, & Mahon, 1993; Carroll, 1993; Dutton & Ashford, 1993; Dutton & Jackson, 1987), and issue response development (e.g., Greening & Gray, 1994; Mahon, 1989; Post, 1978; Sethi, 1979). In addition, IM has been extended to international analyses (Brewer, 1992; McCann & Gomez-Mejias, 1986; Nigh & Cochran, 1987), and it is consistently incorporated as an important element of corporate social performance frameworks (Thompson, Wartick, & Smith, 1991; Wartick & Cochran, 1985; Wood, 1991). However, throughout this explosion of IM study, far more attention has been paid to its management than to its issues dimension. As noted correctly by Ehling and Heese (1983), "the issues management literature demonstrates that there is nothing obvious about what constitutes and issue, . . . a term . . . which needs careful consideration and clarification before it can be made useful".
Some IM scholars would argue with this observation of Ehling and Heese. Some might contend that defining and clarifying the corporate issue construct is not important because corporate issues are defined by multiple stakeholders, and the key to IM is knowing an issue when you see it--a passive approach to defining a corporate issue. Others might argue that defining and clarifying the corporate issue construct is not important because an issue is merely "a problem, question, or choice being faced" (Tombari, 1984, p. 353) or "an unsettled matter ready for decision" (Chase, 1984, p. 38)--a universal approach to defining a corporate issue. However, even if such passive and universal approaches to defining the corporate issue construct were adequate at some earlier point in IM study, in its current context these approaches fall short. They do not differentiate IM from management in general, and they reduce IM scholarship to nothing more than the study of reactive, crisis-oriented activity. To make IM theory and research more consistent with reality and thus more valued, a more substantive answer is needed to the question. What is a corporate issue? To address many of the problems associated with the practice of IM--that is, problems with measuring costs and benefits, anticipating uncertain futures, and evaluating common units of analysis (Arcelus & Schaeffer, 1982)--the corporate issue construct must be defined more precisely.
The purpose of this article is to develop a more precise definition of the corporate issue construct. The objective is to build a definition that delineates more clearly both what a corporate issue is and, just as important, what a corporate issue is not. Discussion first centers around three major themes that are evident in existing efforts to define a corporate issue. Then the implications of these themes are analyzed. Finally, a reformulated definition of a corporate issue is offered and examined.
Three Themes in Existing Definitions of the Corporate Issue Construct
Existing definitions of a corporate issue that go beyond the passive and universal approaches noted previously can serve as an effective starting point for developing more precision in the construct. These existing conceptualizations pay little attention to either the type of issue being addressed (e.g., strategic, public policy, social, etc.) or the organizational focus (e.g., corporate, governmental, labor union, etc.) under consideration. Certainly, the type of issue and the organizational focus are crucial variables for issue identification, issue assessment, and issue response, but they are less important for understanding the fundamental nature of issues. For this latter task, the important points rest more with the basic characteristics of issues. More specifically, three major themes relating to these basic characteristics of issues are apparent in existing definitions.
THE IMPACT THEME
The first theme is impact. This theme is most often found within the business strategy literature that has, for the most part, accepted and built from the definition of an issue provided by Ansoff. Ansoff (1975) defined issues as "major environmental trends and possible events that may have a major and discontinuous impact on the firm". Later, Moore (1979) defined an issue as "a trend or condition, internal or external, that, if continued, would have a significant effect on how a company is operated over the period of its business plan", and Ansoff (1980) formalized the definition of a strategic issue as "a forthcoming development, either inside or outside of the organization, which is likely to have an important impact on the ability of the enterprise to meet its objectives". The impact theme in these definitions forces consideration of three key dimensions of a corporate issue: (a) the firm-specific nature of issues, (b) the importance of the future as well as the present, and (c) both internal and external change as possible sources of issues.
According to this impact view, when change occurs it must be felt somewhere within the organization for a corporate issue to exist. If change occurs--say, a social movement, a demographic trend, or a catastrophic event--but the organization is not significantly affected, then no corporate issue exists (see Bigelow, Fahey, & Mahon, 1991, for an expansion of this point). This assertion is extremely important for defining and understanding the corporate issue construct because the recognition of firm-specific impact (either present or future, either internally or externally motivated) links corporate issues to--but at the same time differentiates corporate issues from--more general social movements, trends, events, and "forthcoming developments." For example, increasing diversity in the U.S. workforce is clearly a trend, but it is not a corporate issue until it prompts some positive or negative impact on personnel policies, productivity, community relations, or some other element of corporate …