Communicating Brexit internally


by Marc Wright

Many of us have experienced the feeling of being parachuted into a crisis where we’re expected to produce results in short order, under pressure, to near impossible deadlines and with rather too little resource or preparation. It’s the stuff of what we do; we’re brought in to provide the communications expertise and perspective during periods of high uncertainty.

Today’s unexpected result of the Brexit referendum is particularly challenging as the vast majority of businesses in the UK and their leaders came out in favour of remaining inside the EU. While the implications of June 23rd will take months and years to work out, all companies are waking up this morning with a huge headache about how the decision will affect their workforces, their markets, their trading agreements and legal obligations. And few have any answers.

What can we do to help ourselves survive and even thrive in such a work situation?  What techniques and practices can we employ so that we succeed to our own high standards and to those of the companies we work for? Here is the simply checklist of what to do on Day 1 followed by advice from two change communications specialists: Chris Hipwell and Liam FitzPatrick. And join the BrexitComms – Brexit advice for Internal Comms Professionalson Linkedin and follow us on #BrexitComms.

Brexit checklist

1. Reassure

The Leave/Remain campaigns were brutal and many of the headlines have stoked up fears about the implications for the UK economy and the prospect of a new recession. Your first communications has to mitigate that mood music and emphasise calm. Nothing is going to change immediately in terms of your company’s trading plans. Despite volatility in currency fluctuations and stock market valuations Britian will remain in the EU for at least two years. So it is imperative to reassure staff that the company is taking a measured approach; there are no knee-jerk reactions by the Board to make changes in the short or medium term. It is very much business as usual.

2. Instil confidence

Your company cannot have a plan until the political and economic landscape becomes clearer. However you can express the Board’s commitment the UK’s operations and markets. Also announce that there is a working party in place at the most senior level looking at the changes and planning accordingly in the best interested of staff, customers and shareholders. It is about communicating resilience – the ability to withstand the short term knocks and the strength to take advantage of the changes ahead.

3. Talk about talking

You will not be able to communicate anything substantial about future plans, so instead communicate the process and timetable for how the implications of Brexit will be discussed and communicated.

4. Listen

Set up a forum on the intranet about Brexit. Allow and encourage staff to record their observations, concerns and even fears about the future.  Engage senior executives and subject matter experts to respond to these questions. Where untruths are expressed, corrrect them with facts; where concerns are raised acknowledge their legitimacy and then reassure where there is an agreed policy. Allow grey areas to remain unanswered; it is better to admit that you don’t know all the answers. But throughout reassure staff that they will be consulted and involved at every stage of any changes.

Chris Hipwell had an extensive journalistic and communications career in the BBC, concluding with a role managing both corporate and divisional communications. Here he offers help for when you’re dealing with crisis and under fire, under three headings – strategic, practical and personal:

The Strategic

1. Get under the skin of the subject

To be confident about communicating, you need to be confident about the subject. However surprised you are to find yourself in subject matter you may have never dealt with before take on the essence of the content as soon as you can so that you can argue with conviction, and bring others along with you. Telling people that you’re only the communicator robs you of all conviction and devalues the profession. You won’t be asked to deliver a half-hour treatise on the subject, but you will need to sound convincing about the basics in the context of the communications you’re delivering.

Your senior team will be locked away working on a company line on the situation. There may be no clear strategy about the implications of the situation for your company for some considerable time. Meanwhile the rumour mill will start to churn and very quickly colleagues will speculate for themselves and you need to fill that gap.

To get under the skin of people’s concerns, find the notable sceptics in the company and try to win them round over a cup of coffee. Ask the basics of the people who know:

  • What are your concerns about the implications of what’s happened for our company?
  • What’s at stake?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Most importantly, don’t be intimidated; if you think you’re asking dumb or basic questions, you can bet a sizeable number of your audience will be asking the same. Which makes it not dumb at all.

2. Get with the beat

To effect change, you have to communicate actively with core, authoritative messages. As a key communicator you need to have access to the facts as near to first hand as possible. We all know that communication suffers along the ‘Chinese Whispers’ principle; the more people there are in the chain, the more unfocused the message gets. So communications people have every reason to want to be as high up that chain as they can.

Wanting to be at the heart of things is a perfectly natural instinct for a communicator. That’s a good place to be if you want to get at the unvarnished truth, to hear the messages unfiltered. And if there’s not a seat for you there, ring them up, take them for a coffee (this could be getting expensive) or ‘accidentally’ bump into them in a lift or corridor and give them the top 5 concerns that you are hearing on. the ‘shop floor’

3. The human touch

Remember while communicating, it’s about people and relationships much more than it is about processes and technologies. Machines won’t solve problems of their own accord, people will. Work out who you need to do most business with, and cultivate good relationships there. Who can you call on who will call a spade a spade, and help keep you on the straight and narrow? Make your motivations clear; you’re not doing this to achieve promotion, or make people’s life difficult for the sake of it; it’s to serve the business better and the people who work there.

The Practical

1. Work out the meetings you need to be in and then get into them, somehow. Ignore the non-essential ones, but cultivate a good source to tell you what went on there. Don’t be afraid to call your own meeting from scratch; in that way lies respect.

2. Use your contact list ruthlessly. The simple act of being able to contact who you want, when you want, how you want, is probably more important than any other single skill. And you’ll be amazed how often you end up supplying other people’s requests for contacts.

3. Create a group on Yammer or whatever social platform you use. Make it private at this stage to collect and co-ordinate your comms campaign.

The Personal

1. Develop a Teflon coating if under criticism, or if someone has a go at you or your role. Make it clear you are acting in the best interests of the company and the people who work there. Even if it feels personal, it won’t help to take it that way. And rise up above office politics; you don’t need to be in that space at all.

2.Look and sound like you’re in control. If you look confident in what you’re doing and communicating, there’s more chance of someone else feeling that way too.

3. Try to under-react just a bit to things that other people consider to be sudden problems/crises/matters of life and death. You’ll think clearer that way, and give an air that there’s no problem either that you can’t deal with, or haven’t come across before. But don’t under-react to the extent that you don’t appear to care. Simply deal with it – quietly, quickly and confidently.

Asking the right questions

Liam FitzPatrick of Working Communication Strategies believes there are five main questions to ask:

• Are they aware?

When you work in a change team it is easy to assume that the rest of the world knows a lot more about the implications of Brexit than they really do. Challenging stakeholders around what has been said so far and how much has actually penetrated ensures your communications has a firm foundation on which to build understanding and confidence.

• Do they understand?

As a communicator you know that there is a world of difference between knowledge and understanding; surprisingly not everyone realises this. Before people can support a change they need a space to explore the idea, perhaps asks questions and see how it applies to them personally.

Of course understanding doesn’t guarantee enthusiasm or support, but it’s always easier to work with well-informed sceptics than people who are frightened by a lack of clarity.

It’s at this stage that engaging with people face to face starts to pay dividends; a well briefed line manager is worth a million posters and emails!

• Are they excited?…or at least not obstructive?

We know that emotion is central to even the most rational-seeming decisions so we need to find ways of tapping into personal motivations. Perhaps we need messages that talk about the social benefits of independence from the EU, maybe we need to show how Britain will be a better place or more “in control” after the change.

• Are they competent?

There’s no point explaining the need for change if the tools or support people need are not really there. At the very beginning it is worth challenging the project team about whether the Brexit strategy will actually work or being tough minded about the practical impact of change. After all, who wants to sell a bright new future that doesn’t exist to employees; get this wrong and staff will take years to trust your communications again.

• Is it business as usual?

As your senior team work through the implications it’s time to consolidate and highlight what is working. This could be a town hall with senior management or as simple as consistently reporting stories of the situation and things people are learning. Injecting the views of customers and their perspectives will help reassure colleagues that the changes are not harmful.

Naturally, there is overlap between these stages and change communicators are used to going backwards and forwards between these questions over the life of the Brexit program. Tracking sentiment and levels of understanding will give you valuable insight to adjust plans and make your effort more effective.