Profile: Di Burton

SHE’S fired live ammo from an AK-47 in Zimbabwe, lived on a desert island and hitched a ride on an elephant.

Di Burton of Cicada Communications

Di Burton is certainly blessed with a spirit of adventure, but her real passion is teaching “soft” skills to policymakers and captains of industry.

According to Ms Burton, leaders can only command respect if they listen and display empathy. Those who use rigid, one way communication systems are on a fast-track to failure.

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It also helps if, like Ms Burton, you are blessed with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a fascination with human behaviour.

In her role as the founder and managing director of Cicada Communications, Ms Burton has worked in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and helped to raise the reputation and profile of a host of big corporate names, including the Institute of Directors. That’s to say nothing of her early life in South Africa, working behind the scenes on the country’s equivalent of EastEnders.

But what unites the disparate strands of Ms Burton’s career is a desire to find out what makes people tick.

One of her great passions is the complex world of internal communications and staff engagement. A happy, well-informed team is likely to be more productive.

“It’s about people who are messy, fragile, irrational and emotional, and how we change behaviours,’’ said Ms Burton. “The best degrees you can have to work in public relations are psychology, sociology and anthropology.

“It’s about meaning and culture, but the problems are that a lot of leaders don’t think they have to change their own behaviour. I’m an incorrigible self-improver. I’m constantly going on courses and reading books. Leadership throughout the world, whether it’s in the church, in business or in Government, is badly lacking. and it all comes down to leader behaviour. The most basic human need is love and esteem.”

If you respect, recognise and value your staff, you’re more likely to have good relationships at work.

“All these top-down, one way mechanisms don’t work, because they don’t engage with people,’’ she said.

Before arriving in God’s Own County, Ms Burton enjoyed a roller-coaster career in South African TV.

“I was on the production side, first of all in sport, and then in the biggest drama, which was probably the equivalent of EastEnders, called the Villagers,’’ she recalled. “I was the assistant producer, and then from there, I was asked to be a continuity girl on South Africa’s biggest feature film, called The Gods Must be Crazy. It was just mind-blowing. I’ve ridden elephants in the Limpopo river, I’ve lived with a bushman for three months. I had experiences that people would never imagine.”

During her time in Africa, she got the chance to use an AK-47 and filmed in the world’s deepest goldmine. She also spent time on a desert island, when she was working behind the scenes on an early reality TV show.

After completing a PR diploma in South Africa, she emigrated to North Yorkshire with her husband Andrew in 1985, and their two pre-school children.

She recalled: “My friends in South Africa said, ‘Why on earth are you going to live up North?

“Other people said, ‘No, people in the North will tell you straight to your face, people in the South will be really nice to you, but criticise you behind your back.’

“I’ve always loved the straight-talking Yorkshire people.”

She established Harrogate-based Cicada Communications, which takes its name from a small insect with a distinctive “song”, in 1987. Today, it’s a full service communications agency, offering help with media relations, crisis management, and employee engagement. It’s got six staff and two associates.

For 16 years, Ms Burton directed the MA in Public Communications programme for the Government Communication Network at Leeds Trinity University College. She’s also picked up fellowships from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and she is a member of the Reform Club and Yorkshire’s Two Per Cent club, which campaigns for more gender-balanced businesses. Quite an achievement for somebody who came to Yorkshire with an empty contacts book.

“I’m from a very big family, and if you don’t talk up, you don’t get heard,’’ she said. “It’s about what gets you noticed. I had this broad South African accent and so journalists remembered me. I was very straight talking and gave them what they wanted. There are no areas of business that I haven’t done, but I must emphasise my back is full of scars. You only learn by making lots of errors. If you don’t take risks, you don’t learn so I’m a big risk taker. I don’t see barriers. I have made mistakes but I now know the right way to do it.”

Earlier this year, she had a seven month stint as interim head of communications for North Yorkshire Police, an organisation in which sensitive and timely communications are vital,

“After nearly 30 years, we’ve built up a fantastic brand at Cicada. And that brand needs to continue,’’ said Ms Burton, who turned 60 this year. “I have got plans in place for it to continue way beyond me. I’m also very proud of the work I’ve done in Government, because it affects people’s lives, and it’s not just the profit motive.”

Ms Burton and the team at Cicada have also promoted National Insect Week, which encourages us to value and protect the smallest creatures. She has grabbed life by the scruff of the neck, and like her hero Shakespeare, Ms Burton believes clients should spend time musing on the nature of reputation.

“Isn’t it better to actively manage your reputation, than accept the one that others determine for you?’’ she said.