Perspectives on crisis communication

  1. The agency perspective

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Introduction and the trainer’s perspective 

Chris Tucker is course leader for the CIPR Specialist Diploma: Crisis Communication with PR Academy and chair of the CIPR Crisis Communications Network.

“Everyone thinks they can do PR until there’s a crisis,” remarked an ex-student of mine the other day.  The marketing department will have a go writing press releases but once the very existence of the organisation is threatened all eyes are on the PR professionals to support the management team. We have all seen this happen.   

Most recently the COVID pandemic saw PR teams propelled into the senior executive room if they weren’t there before. Senior leaders recognised that crisis management is all about communication.  It’s about sourcing accurate information about what is happening; processing that information into messages stakeholders will understand and then getting those messages out to the right people at the right time. All at great speed and across a multiplicity of channels.  

At the heart of most if not all crises there is some kind of ethical dilemma. 

At the heart of most if not all crises there is some kind of ethical dilemma.  What is the right thing for the organisation to do?  How to navigate numerous often conflicting stakeholder demands?  Again, it is often the PR professionals who are expected to have the answers or at the very least help lead the organisation through the decision-making process.  Crisis communication is PR working at the most strategic level. 

We can clearly see the linkages between the demands of crisis communication and becoming Chartered.  The process of Chartership is about assessing the PR professional against three requirements: strategy, leadership, and ethics.  And at the PR Academy we have a number of students who have progressed from studying the CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma with us to going for Chartership.  Below is the first in our series of profiles, we’ll be sharing more during the coming weeks.

The agency perspective 

Chloe Chescoe, Black Vanilla
Chloe Chescoe

Chloe Chescoe is a senior account manager at Black Vanilla, a Guernsey-based agency, handling B2B, B2C PR and campaign management. Chloe leads and delivers a range of campaigns for financial services and consumer clients in the Crown Dependencies. 

What motivated you to do the CIPR crisis communication diploma? 

Early on in my career while working in-house, I was thrown into my first, very real crisis situation as part of a crisis response team dealing with the impact of Hurricane Irma on our business in the Caribbean. I was only 23 and in at the deep end, but I had a good team around me and learned on the job quickly. 

I think you need to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie to love crises, and that’s me! But I wanted to couple that experience and enthusiasm with a well-recognised qualification so I knew I would be giving clients the best advice. 

I’d worked for another agency in the Channel Islands previously and they were very strong on qualifications for the team and I’d previously completed the CIPR Advanced Certificate qualification (now the Professional PR Certificate). 

What sort of potential crises do your clients face? 

We can be advising on anything – natural disasters, data breaches, the actions of a disgruntled employee. Fortunately in the Channel Islands, they are few and far between but it doesn’t mean it’s not important to be prepared. 

At Black Vanilla, we have two crisis practitioners and it’s a service we actively promote to clients. We have clients who have come specifically to us for this type of help but usually, we are integrating crisis communication planning as part of our service to existing clients. 

Guernsey is a big financial hub but no matter what the sector, we think it’s important to talk actively to industry leaders about it and get crisis communication planning on their radar. 

Guernsey can be a bit different to other locations, compared to London for example it has a slower pace of life, but that doesn’t mean less risk and organisations must realise “it could happen to anyone”.  

Did your perspective on crisis communication and issues management change after doing the Crisis Communication Diploma course?  

I think the CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma helped me to understand the processes better.  How to create a playbook for crisis, run simulations and prepare for different scenarios.  

One of my lightbulb moments was the importance of different stakeholders and the need to plan accordingly – although as a practitioner you know this is the case it can be easy in the midst of the crisis to forget some external stakeholders, so planning is vital. We also spent quite a bit of time talking about what a crisis actually is and whether there is a threat to a business ceasing to exist.   

Can you share an example of a real-life crisis that you have been involved in? 

The hurricane incident on the British Virgin Island (BVI) that I mentioned earlier is a good example. I was working for an offshore law firm, based in the Channel Islands, with offices in the BVI, Cayman Islands and Hong Kong and we were responsible for global communications across all offices. 

There were three key learning points for me.  

Firstly, there is strength in numbers, liaison with other businesses are important if it’s something like a natural disaster that affects everyone located there. You can create a combined approach so communications are consistent and you’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.  

Secondly, there was a lot of debate about what we could and couldn’t say. Initially, we decided to follow the lead of the BVI government in terms of comms being put out, but we realised we needed to be more proactive and this was the right decision at the time to create an alliance with other professional services businesses. 

The third point is one of the most important – reflection.  You need to let the dust settle after an incident or crisis and then come together to discuss what you learned and how you can carry that forward into planning for future incidents and crises. Hiring an agency can really help with this process as they are unbiased.  

Lots of people think that reflection is easy but it takes the right kind of culture to be able to put your hand up and say that something went wrong or could be done better.

Lots of people think that reflection is easy but it takes the right kind of culture to be able to put your hand up and say that something went wrong or could be done better. I’m a big believer in the importance of doing this though and I encourage it now with my colleagues. I also think as an industry we are happier doing this, practitioners can also include this as part of the CPD process too. 

What do you think were the main takeaways from studying the Crisis Communication Diploma? 

We’ve already mentioned stakeholders, but I would also say the importance of internal stakeholder relationships to make sure everyone is on the same page.  

Then practice, practice, practice! Have a playbook and update it regularly. 

As part of the CIPR you have a lot of resources at your fingertips, use them! The additional reading I did helped me to achieve the qualification.  

What advice would you give to a practitioner who is trying to get their organisation to be prepared for a crisis?  

Remind senior leaders that it could happen to them. There can be a tendency for leaders to think “They’re not looking at me” but a crisis can happen to anyone. 

I also think it’s important to educate leaders on the difference between issues management and crisis comms, a tendency for others is to think that everything is a crisis.  

It won’t always work, but people will listen if they understand there is a threat to their business. 

Can you tell me a bit about your professional development journey? 

Following my CIPR qualifications, and with ten years of experience, chartership seemed like a natural next step. As a young practitioner – I’m now 28 – I feel it gives an additional stamp of authority and evidence that I can give the right advice. 

I also believe in being a role model for younger practitioners in the agency. 

My learnings from the crisis diploma, particularly around ethics, leadership and strategy really helped with the Chartership assessment. Another bonus is that as part of the process I had to develop a two-year CPD plan. I do a lot of research anyway and follow breaking stories to help keep up with practice. 

I would advise anyone looking at their professional development to make a physical plan – don’t panic and end up watching or reading anything just to get the points. Think about whether you can you balance your CPD with the needs of your role and your personal interests. I was interested in crisis and it was part of my role so I made that a part of my CPD. 

Perspectives on crisis communication