29 September


Reflections on comms in a crisis

James Burstall, CEO of Argonon, one of the UK’s largest international independent TV production groups, has now written a book on making your business more resilient to future shocks.

Deloitte’s 2023 Corporate Affairs Report found that since the pandemic corporate affairs has been “tested to navigate a perfect storm of crises.”

Many business leaders gained a new appreciation of the work of communicators during the Covid pandemic. One of them was James Burstall, CEO of Argonon, one of the UK’s largest international independent TV production groups, who has now written a book on making your business more resilient to future shocks after steering his company through a series of crises.

James Burstall

James Burstall:

During any crisis, a business leader is going to need to step up communication and during Covid in particular, I had to really heavily on my HR & comms teams.

I’m sure you can vividly remember the raw fear that pervaded when the pandemic took a grip in March 2020. People were scared to come into the office or use public transport and there was panic buying in supermarkets.

One of the first things we decided from a comms point of view was that we should avoid simply pretending everything is going to be fine. We had no idea what the death toll was going to be or if we would ever get a vaccine. At that point we had no idea whether we would survive as a business.

We all crave optimism, but there’s no point in sugar-coating the situation. I made a point of rooting all my communication in the real world as things evolved. This doesn’t mean you have to be a pessimist but excessive confidence in such an obviously difficult situation would lose credibility.

During a crisis people have a heightened need for good, honest communication that gives them information, guidance, helps them adjust and cope emotionally and puts their experience into context, giving it some kind of meaning.

As a leader, that’s a huge weight of expectation on your shoulders. The pandemic put executives under intense public scrutiny as companies were judged for the care, authenticity, and sense of purpose they demonstrated. Through these difficult times we followed a system we called The Flexible Method, putting people first and communicating calmly and transparently.

The content of our communications changed as the crisis evolved. I have found it was best to tailor our communications to the likely emotional state of our stakeholders, focusing on what they needed most at that moment.

During the first lockdown I felt acutely concerned about the more junior members of our team. I knew they must be frightened and feel isolated. So I decided to start writing a morning email to my entire team, across the globe. I would speak frankly and openly. It is a very personal lo-fi way of connecting with everyone on the team. In daily emails I repeated and reinforced messages. You may get tired of repeating key messages, but your stakeholders need to hear them several times.

Our communications focused on giving people necessary information while encouraging them to remain calm and stay safe. Your stakeholders will have limited attention in a breaking crisis as there is a lot is going on and they can feel frightened and overwhelmed. They are not going to be in a state to be able to process complicated information so I kept messages simple, to the point, and actionable.

I felt it was important to state up front what our organization’s objective was in the emergency and commit to achieving it. I recommend sharing different strategy options you are considering when faced with the crisis. Transparency builds trust and shows respect for employees by assuming they are sufficiently intelligent and resilient to cope with this openness.

If your communications are going to be effective, your audience must trust you and what you are saying, especially in a crisis. We decided to maintain transparency and be honest about where things stood and I was not afraid to show vulnerability. I felt it was important to show empathy. And acknowledge fear, pain, and suffering.

Demonstrating vulnerability, sharing your own feelings and acknowledging emotional turmoil can help build trust, but you need to be careful not to go overboard here. BP CEO Tony Hayward’s remarks after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spring to mind here.

We found a helpful way of offsetting bad news is to remind people of times when they overcame challenges in the past, during previous crises, for example.

People also tend to pay more attention to positively framed information, so we told people what they should do rather than what shouldn’t (“Do’s” rather than “don’ts”).

As the crisis evolved, we aimed to help people cope emotionally with the trauma of sudden change and adjustment to the ‘new normal’.

We allowed employees to be able to express their concerns to management without fear of damaging their careers. Periodically reporting back with feedback and follow-up actions built trust in our leadership – not only during this critical period but also continuing after the crisis.

As the crisis deepens you will need to build resilience in your team, foster a sense of hope and optimism to supercharge creativity, and plan for the future. During Covid we:

  • Celebrated the positives, even small wins. Shared uplifting moments about how our people were adapting to new ways of working.
  • Publicly thanked staff, speaking to them directly or sending personal thank-you notes.
  • Action reduces anxiety and can restore a sense of control, so we gave people relevant, constructive things to do that involved helping others affected by the crisis.
  • Encouraged a sense of common social identity and belonging based on shared values of mutual support and achievement.

As people adapted, our comms increasingly focused on helping them to make sense of their experiences in the crisis. We highlighted the shared sense of purpose, how our organization responded, and set out our plan for the future with two or three simple goals.

You do need to set out a clear vision for how your organization and its people will emerge.

You must then take actions to realize those goals, because communication not only consists of words, but also actions and people will take note of what you do to follow up on your words.

My conclusion since Covid is that communications may well be your most important skill as a leader.

I’m aware that I am addressing some of the UK’s most senior comms professionals, so I would welcome any feedback on our approach.


*The Flexible Method: Prepare to Prosper in the Next Global Crisis, available from


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