Thought Leadership

Crisis, comfort and resilience

Andy Coulson speaks with Nicola Kemp at the Alliance of Independent Agencies’ Festival of Happiness on coping with crisis

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


“Looking back at the past 10 years you can’t help but think the use of the word ‘crisis’ is justified, the world is in a never-ending rolling crisis,” says Andy Coulson, Founder of Coulson Partners and the host and creator of the ‘Crisis what crisis’ podcast.

From a global pandemic to national lockdowns, political unrest to conflict, the world is no stranger to crisis, and yet, Coulson argues the word is used too frequently. “A crisis is when you’ve lost all control,” says Coulson.

At the Alliance of Independent Agencies’ Festival of Happiness event, Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director at Creativebrief sat down with Andy Coulson to consider what constitutes a crisis, how to face a crisis with resilience and discuss the future of work in the creative industries. 

Combatting crisis with reason 

Between being Director of Communications at Downing Street, a hotbed of change, and landing in the centre of controversy as Editor of the News of the World, Coulson is no stranger to crisis. In fact, much of his work stems from the word. Yet, Coulson shares that he spends much of his time now talking clients down. “I often tell clients they aren’t actually in crisis,” he explains, adding: “control is key and the key to gaining control is acceptance.”

When politician Michael Gove appeared on Coulson’s podcast, he said that ‘no one should be defined by their worst moment.’ A sentiment that can also be translated to business. For businesses, a crisis can equate to a loss of control. To combat that loss of control, Coulson advocates for a plan (and a podcast!) to prepare.

Such a plan, Coulson argues, should be grounded in ‘reasonableness’. Instead of a focus on forgiveness, he looks to a more pragmatic and measured response to crisis. “Get to a space of reasonableness where you have the ability to make an argument,” Coulson advises.

He points to technology as a driver of polarization and warns that ‘black-and-white thinking’ can make situations worse, not better. Yet Kemp points to the importance of being unreasonable in the pursuit of progress, asking Coulson ‘what is reasonable?’

“My definition [of reasonable] is allowing others to have an opinion and being happy to sit in disagreement,” says Coulson. He continues: “In a professional crisis if you get to a position where you can make your case, where people’s judgements and views are reasonable.”

For despite the strength of opinion so often displayed on social media, Coulson believes it is important to think about the average person. He explains: “Most people live in the grey. Don't let polarised positions affect decision making, don't mistake it for where the vast majority spend their lives.” 

Crisis comforts and resilience  

While it may be that crisis isn’t always as dire as it seems, the everyday stress of work and a lack of capacity can result in overwhelm and burnout. On Coulson’s podcast he asks guests for their ‘crisis comforts’, the ways they self-care and cope with crisis.

Don't let polarized positions affect decision making, don't mistake it for where the vast majority spend their lives.

Andy Coulson, Founder of Coulson Partners and ‘Crisis what crisis’ podcast

“We used to call them crisis cures but nothing cures crisis” adds Coulson. He shares that many guests choose health, fitness, meditation, music and treats. The most memorable answers were Mark Hix’s ‘keep drinking the most expensive wine you can afford,’ and Victoria Milligan’s advice to focus on the small; keep putting one foot in front of the other and find the comfort in taking one step at a time.

Coulson shares that he has learnt a lot from the podcast, particularly around the idea of being resilient in life and in business. He advocates for honesty and truth in client relationships to create a commercially resilient strategy. “It can be risky but when I embark on a commercial relationship I need to know the client really wants my help,” says Coulson.

Setting expectations from the beginning and building a plan together can create a more robust relationship that bleeds down to employees too. Speaking the truth to both clients and teams can seem risky, but ultimately leads to a more coherent workplace. 

Pressure is a privilege 

In his smaller ‘boutique’ consultancy, Coulson recognises the benefits of being a small business and acknowledges that pressure can be a privilege.

Providing feedback to help development and individual growth is not easy but can help create a culture of honesty. “I don’t think criticism or calling out poor performance is bad,” says Coulson, adding: “it can help mental health.”

He advocates for the same truth and honesty within the workplace as he does with his clients. Particularly he sees the importance in being truthful about ‘commercial truth’ and the part that employees play in that in order to ‘build mutual trust.’

On hybrid work, he stresses that ‘working with others is more meaningful’. “Work is the most meaningful thing in my life,” Coulson says. He aims to provide this sense of meaning and honesty to those that he works with. While hybrid working and back to work mandates have split the industry, making sure that the workplace and the work is ‘meaningful and creative’ stands teams in good stead.

Approaching the workplace with honesty, not being afraid to shy away from an apology and finding comfort in crisis, Coulson continues his work in crisis with reasonableness at the core.

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