UK politics clearly has had a busy period over the last 12 months and the future certainly doesn’t look any less busy. The snap election on the 8th June this year is set to affect further changes and with Prime Minister Theresa May having triggered Article 50 on the 29th March, the UK is now on its path to exiting the European Union. It was pure coincidence that the 29th March also marked the start of the 47th annual PROI meeting, a meeting where I joined over 100 colleagues from our network of over 70 independent communications agency partners from around the world for four days of discussions, workshops and talks on themes and trends affecting global communications. With these events coinciding, I wanted to take a step back to reflect on what the current ‘pre-Brexit’ state means for communications consultants looking to execute effective programmes in the UK.
I shared the following four themes with our global colleagues, as a starting point for a discussion on how to navigate the key challenges and opportunities that Brexit has to offer within a communications context:
1. Are your views and opinions being heard by the UK Government?
One of the clear fallouts from the referendum vote is the fact that the UK is heavily divided on the future direction of the country. Divided in views by age, geography, ethnicity, education, media consumption and many more factors. As a result, the Government is on a clear mission to unite the nation again, to quote Theresa May in her Article 50 speech: “I want this United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before.”
We have seen this evidenced in a period of relatively neutral policies since the referendum in June last year; in March the Chancellor delivered one of the ‘tamest’ Budgets in years, focused on ‘crowd pleasing’ policies. Hard-hitting policy making is taking a back seat while the Government has turned a firm ear to the ground. As a result, UK politicians are in listening mode, seeking to gather views and opinions from various groups and industries on what the future could and should look like. With this open door, there is an almost unprecedented opportunity for organisations, companies, brands and individuals to engage with the people that will shape the future of this country and to ensure their views are heard and understood.
2. Do you have any ‘good news’ to tell?
Despite the ongoing news on the need for clarity around future trade relationships with the EU, communications advisors should remember that Britain is very much ‘open for business’. There is a genuine desire by the government, industry and media to showcase successful trade relations and inward investment. Countries and companies with UK trade news to tell will be able to capitalise on this opportunity over the next months and years.
3. Are you appealing to minds and hearts?
If the pre-referendum Leave and Remain campaigns have shown one thing, it is that facts and experts are no longer enough to win public support. Expert fatigue has truly swept the UK and the nation’s trust in self-proclaimed ‘facts’ and rationale is on the decline. The public is more probing than ever before – looking for information about the ‘real impact’, how a brand’s or company’s news is going to make them think and feel. As a result, skilful corporate ‘storytelling’ is seeing a renaissance, posing a clear challenge for communications advisers, as it is storytelling that needs to win hearts and minds and storytelling that is under more public scrutiny than ever before.
4. Can your story pass the test of adding real depth to your brand or organisation?
Communications advisers need to be aware that the public will be keeping a watchful eye on corporate stories and has the ability to mobilise at an unprecedented speed if a company or organisation is suspected of ‘just telling a story’. If a story isn’t deeply embedded in corporate behaviour, the company at its heart is no doubt going to face challenges.
Many of us will remember the week in November 2016 when in the space of 24 hours, Bob Jones, a 42-year old father with just over 100 twitter followers, mobilised over 22,000 likes and 13,000 shares for his social media post asking Lego to withdraw its Daily Mail advertising contract. Bob questioned how deeply embedded Lego’s values are, which the company states as “… the desire to make a positive difference … in the world we live in. Doing that little bit extra, not because we have to – but because it feels right and because we care.” Bob raised concern over the newspaper’s recent headlines, that “do nothing but create distrust of foreigners, blame immigrants for everything and as of yesterday are now having a go at top judges in the U.K. for being gay while making a legal judgement”. Bob explained that “it genuinely bothers me that a great progressive company like yours supports this “news” paper, helping it increase its circulation. Lego to me has always been an inclusive product. [..] Your links to the Daily Mail are wrong.”
Lego, and consequently various other companies bowed to this public scrutiny, which has been united under the #StopFundingHate campaign, confirming they would not renew their advertising and promotions contracts with the Daily Mail and other news outlets. The #StopFundingHate campaign sent a timely reminder to storytellers in the run up to Christmas, the UK’s great corporate storytelling season that is Christmas advertisements – challenging brands and companies not “just to tell us a story” but to ask “what if goodwill to all wasn’t only meant for Christmas?”
It is clear that the UK and its future direction is in a state of uncertainty at this stage, which has only been further reinforced by the snap election that has been announced for the 8th June this year. But there are already opportunities and threats that are emerging from a communications perspective. It is our job as communications advisers to continuously observe and analyse the environment we operate in and to help the organisations and clients we work for to navigate this ever changing UK landscape.