Issues Management of Compounding Wicked Problems by Critical Infrastructure Utilities: Cybersecurity and COVID-19

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“Wicked problems” present issues managers in public relations with complex challenges and no definitive resolutions. Multiple concurrent wicked problems may compound these challenges. This study extends understanding of how issues managers address compounding wicked problems with a multiple-case study. The multiple-case study focuses on the experiences of issues managers at public cooperative electric distribution utilities and includes interviews with issues management personnel at multiple levels of oversight and influence, including regional, national, and federal organizations. Interviews with issues managers explore strategies for identifying and addressing wicked problems and reactions to messaging from other organizations. Examination of publicly available organizational communications and media triangulate conclusions. This study illustrated that compounding wicked problems require issues management, issues managers do not directly address the wicked problem(s), education alone or enforced by policy did not produce lasting changes in behavior advocated to publics, that study of compounding problems requires the problems also have common publics; and issues management by critical infrastructure seeks cocreation. Specific observations include that cultivated networks of communication improved perceptions of legitimacy in sources of information and guidance, attempts to convey legitimacy from the cultivated network to other publics were not successful, utilities were subject to and responded to power imposed upon them by state authorities, and that utilities relied heavily on establishing organizational legitimacy with member/owner publics when communicating about changes resulting from external influences of either legitimacy or power. In addition, this study illustrated that resilience is the overwhelming priority of critical infrastructure utilities when responding to wicked problems, and both supply chain and utility personnel play indispensable roles in organizational resilience. This study extends existing issues management literature of critical infrastructure utilities, which are currently under-represented in issues management literature.