Perspectives on crisis communication

5: The environment 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

Sharon Bleese
Sharon Bleese

Sharon Bleese is now Head of Business Development, East of England Local Government Association, a politically-led cross party organisation working on behalf of 50 local councils in the East of England.  

When she did the CIPR crisis communication diploma in 2021 she was Coastal Manager, leading communications for a coastal partnership of three councils responsible for 92km of some of the fastest eroding coastline in north west Europe. 

What motivated you to do the CIPR crisis communication diploma? 

With a changing climate and an increasing number of storms, it was recognised at board level that we needed some additional expertise on the team.  

I had already done my CIPR PR Diploma with PR Academy, had become Chartered and was on my 11th cycle of CPD – so a CIPR qualification was the obvious place to look to gain the expertise we needed.  

I already had a lot of experience in incident management. I’d worked with the Environment Agency for 9 years and dealt with incidents including the tidal surge in 2013 when hundreds of people had to leave their homes and then “beast from the east” in 2018 when I was working in local government. 

While I’d been at the sharp end of these incidents, I didn’t always have the broader picture. The role of communications specialist during an incident manager is more about responding but not necessarily planning at a more strategic level. 

What sort of potential crises does your organisation face? 

Incidents such as coastal erosion and flood risk can turn into crises if not handled well. There is the potential for reputational damage for the organisation but even more importantly these scenarios can be life changing for people affected.  

Planning has to take into account the context of climate denial and that’s quite complex. There are different degrees of climate denial. Some deny it completely, others deny that it is man-made.  It can cloud the situation and create a lot of noise on social media when what you want to be doing is focussing on residents.  

Using Andrew Griffin’s bow tie scenario planning model that we covered in the diploma, we identified these key board warriors as a crisis trigger and planned for how we would manage it.  

Bow tie planning model
Bow tie planning model

Did your perspective on crisis communication and issues management change after doing the crisis communication diploma course?  

Yes, planning and preparedness.  I now include elements from the bow tie scenario planning model in every comms plan I do. 

For example, we had to deal with a potential difficult situation where a very valuable property had to be demolished due to coastal erosion. It was of course covered by the media but all the pre planning we did I believe resulted in straightforward factual, neutral coverage. 

I remember one of Chris Tucker’s lectures where she spoke about a rail boss travelling to the scene of a major incident and we discussed his level of preparedness (which was high) – it was a lightbulb moment for me.  

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

Organisations can spend a lot of money on building brands but don’t put a financial value on reputation and it can all go to naught if you aren’t prepared for issues and crises, you can lose your reputation overnight. 

As a practitioner you need to find a champion in the organisation who understands it isn’t all about the organisation looking good, there needs to be investment in the back end of the organisation to make sure it’s doing the right thing too. 

If you are going to invest in anything, invest in planning for the unknown. As a practitioner you need to find a champion in the organisation who understands it isn’t all about the organisation looking good, there needs to be investment in the back end of the organisation to make sure it’s doing the right thing too. 

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

I had done the CIPR PR Diploma with PR Academy and it was at the graduation that Kevin Ruck and Emma Leach, who was CIPR president at the time, suggested I get Chartered. 

That was 2016. I then went on to do the crisis comms diploma in 2021 and became a CIPR Fellow in 2023. 

Each of these milestones has helped me gain promotion leading to the role I have now.  

It really is all about the confidence it gives you to go for it. 

Chartership is also important in my sector – I’m working alongside chartered engineers and scientists and I feel it gives you credibility and more of a voice.  

How would you advise anyone who is planning their professional development journey?  

I’m an advocate in my own organisation for training and professional development and my advice is to “find your people”. By that I mean the CIPR or other professional body and make use of everything it can do for you. 

Perspectives on crisis communication