Case studies: crisis communications

On this page, there are 2 case studies.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environment Agency (Defra)

Being a flood victim is completely devastating and sadly with climate change it is happening more regularly. Defra Group comms represents both the Government response to flooding via Defra and the operational response through the Environment Agency (EA). This gives us responsibility for multiple messaging, channels and audiences and is why a tried and tested process for responding in a flood has been developed.

We lay the groundwork early. Out of incident we deliver a programme of proactive communications on flood prevention, holding EA-fronted media facilities to showcase flood defence work and or ministerial announcements on new flood investment and nature-based flood prevention. We also know flood incidents are unpredictable with their timing, location and severity often changing quickly, so our approach is deliberately flexible but follows a tested process throughout an incident.

As soon as we know flooding is imminent, we organise a media briefing alongside the Met Office and other government departments, establishing a narrative on the severity of the weather and the preparation of the Environment Agency, and delivering vital public safety messaging to ensure that people are prepared.

We prepare as a communications team, with staff who usually focus on other policy areas surging into ‘flood pods’, forming mini comms teams for both Defra and EA as well as bolstering our Newsdesk. Surge capacity helps us deliver a regular rhythm of media updates throughout flooding incidents, with daily press notices and media facilities in affected areas to ensure the visibility of the Environment Agency and deliver important operational updates. We prepare briefing materials ahead of incidents, rota up spokespeople days in advance and organise press office staff to travel to affected areas.

A ministerial (or Prime Ministerial visit) usually forms a key part of our response, usually taking place 2 to 3 days on from the initial flooding so as not to divert resources from the emergency response. We work closely with senior Environment Agency officials and in conjunction with Local Resilience Forums to deliver these visits, building them into our daily rhythm of updates for the media.

During Storm Christoph we followed this strategy carefully, and successfully responded to nearly 400 media enquiries and conducted 170 interviews over the course of a week. As a result, whilst media coverage rightly reflected the human impact of Storm Christoph, which flooded 600 homes, it also included how 49,000 properties had been protected through government action. It also meant government and the Environment Agency was judged to have shown authority and leadership at a time of crisis

Hannah Fletcher and Tom Large, Defra.

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)*

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office faced the huge challenge in March 2020 of repatriating tens of thousands of British Nationals stranded abroad as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown.

The comms team working on these repatriations ran a 24/7 crisis comms response, including setting up specialist teams to both rebut negative stories about the Department – and to plant positive stories about its work in the media.

During the nine-week repatriation period, the FCO issued:

  • 16 proactive stories, generating 37 pieces of positive coverage in print,
  • 44 stories online and 8,360,000+ hits on social media.

The total traditional media reach was estimated to be 351 million.

To land the stories, we worked with 18 embassies, consulates and high commissions, as well as 21 groups of stakeholders and passengers across the world.

Among the stories was the case of Annabel Symes, 19, from Eastbourne, who was on a remote horse ranch in Patagonia when the outbreak began. The FCO* helped her return to the UK on a journey involving a horse, a bus, a taxi and a plane, which was covered widely and positively in The Daily Telegraph, Metro, ITV, Sky’s Kay Burley Show, as well as more specialist outlets Horse and Hound and The Eastbourne Herald.

Other positive stories included Gurkhas helping to repatriate British Nationals from Nepal back to the UK and, separately, the return of a group of British conservationists from the remote Gough Island in the South Atlantic. Most coverages included details of the Foreign Secretary’s £75million repatriation package and none featured any criticism of the FCO.

Separately, our rapid rebuttal team monitored and instantly flagged critical media stories during the repatriation period. Our news desk handled, on average, over 70 media queries a week on this topic alone and we secured prompt corrections to over 20 inaccurate or unbalanced stories, including in The Times, The Daily Mirror, Buzzfeed and BBC.

The comms effort, overall, helped repatriate 38,391 UK Nationals on 186 flights from 86 locations in 57 countries and territories, while defending the Department’s reputation in doing this work.

*note: this case study is from before the FCO and DFID merger of Sept 2020.

Louise Berwick, Pedro Diogo, Hannah Franklin-Wallis, FCDO.