Be Prepared, Be Proactive, Be Bold: Communications Lessons post-Brexit

Published: September 8, 2016

“ When a brand puts a stake in the ground on a controversial topic, it adds support to the cause and allows customers to understand its values and principles.”

Three months on, it’s rare that a story goes by without mentioning Brexit. And yet everything remains so uncertain, making it difficult to know what to say to clients and your team. We’ve been speaking to communications directors to understand how you can still deliver a compelling communications strategy during Brexit and other significant times of uncertainty.

The key lessons are:

• Be prepared. Most organisations were caught off guard by the outcome of the referendum. There may be some merit in saying that Brexit is a once in a lifetime event, but uncertainty remains the watchword of the moment. Companies need to prepare for different scenarios, however unlikely they may at first appear.

• Be proactive. More than half of the companies we spoke to continue to apply a reactive approach to Brexit communications, responding to enquires as they crop up. At a time when trust in politicians is low, companies need to proactively engage clients, partners and staff to meet the demand for credible information and insight.

• Be bold. Most communications around Brexit have sought to blend into the background, offering generically reassuring messages that facilitate a low profile. Companies that take a bolder position can boost brand awareness and reputation. Firms that were on the ‘wrong’ side of the vote still gained significant share of voice and plaudits for speaking out.

So what did we find?

Our research shows that many companies buried their heads in the sand and failed to prepare for the different outcomes of the EU referendum. But there is growing recognition that these are the worst moments in which to hope for the best and say nothing.

Firstly, the age we live in will not allow it. Where companies may once have avoided hot-button issues, it is now potentially riskier to stay silent, as our expectation grows that companies should stand for something. (A recent survey shows 78% of Americans agree that companies should take action to address important issues facing society.) Secondly, it’s in nobody’s interest to go into hiding. The issue won’t magically disappear and precious time lost in trying to understand it will hurt everyone involved. Thirdly, companies could be missing out on a huge commercial opportunity.

When a brand puts a stake in the ground on a controversial topic, it adds support to the cause and allows customers to understand its values and principles.

Of course, individual companies have to weigh up whether taking a position is a safe stand for them. Companies that remained neutral during the referendum chose to for a number of entirely valid reasons. However, taking a wait-and-see strategy can create a window of opportunity for competitors – even if they are on the ‘wrong’ side of the result. For one company, pledging support for the Remain camp resulted in “a huge amount of really positive feedback from clients”. The approach also earned it a reputation as a willing talker among the media – a reputation that continues to pay dividends to this day.

Being proactive, of course, doesn’t have to mean taking a for or against approach. It could involve being clear about what you do and don’t know, and taking action. One company we spoke to developed an innovative internal communications platform to interact with the team. The same business posted instant comments from staff on the day of the result, generating an 80% share of social media voice among its closest competitors. Another produced online FAQs to empower staff to have intelligent conversations with their clients and guide them through any possible change.

But being proactive is not the same thing as being bold. The companies that really stand to profit from the knowledge vacuum, speak up on issues that matter to them. This is far rarer among companies.

A growing number of companies now view the vote and subsequent change in government as an exciting opportunity. “There’s nothing like a seismic event to refresh our plans”, one interviewee commented. Brexit has injected energy into their communications strategy. It has given them the chance to re-frame recurring work in a new and more topical light; to join conversations that were previously out of reach; and to re-assert organisational values and find ways to raise brand awareness.

Where companies can really get ahead of the crowd is in using these conversations and opportunities to become thought leaders. Though the vote may have shown us to be sick of experts, this has in fact – counterintuitively perhaps – opened up space for robust, clearly accredited research where, as one individual put it, “less really is more”.

Preparation for different scenarios is critical in an age of uncertainty. Being proactive will help guide internal and external parties through the inevitable change and disruption it brings. And being bold will set the business apart from close competitors to win new supporters.

We may never again vote on Brexit. But – rest assured – the future will always be uncertain. Let’s embrace it.

Jessica Nicholls, Senior Consultant

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