Communications breakdown

*Gill Holtom, Head of PR at Superdream, shares her thoughts following the UK’s decision last Thursday to leave the European Union…*

The reputations of the politicians, the political establishment and even the country hang in the balance as everyone waits for a clear plan and a clear leader to emerge from the in-fighting, finger-pointing and hand-wringing of the past few days.

When we all woke up to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU on Friday morning, it was for most of us a genuine shock, not least it would seem for the leaders of the Brexit campaign, who emerged stunned and subdued at the press conference and have pretty much gone to ground since then.

In the 24 hours that followed David Cameron announced he would resign, leaving a huge question mark over who would unite a fractured country and steer Britain through the most significant period in its history for more than 50 years.

Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, it seems, is the only one to have thought this through and to have a plan. His was a welcome calm and reassuring voice through the uncertainty and recriminations that followed the vote.

It feels as though the communications rule book has been torn up and thrown away and it doesn’t feel satisfying whichever side of the campaign you sit.

Firstly, there is the disconnect between the electorate and the establishment. There is widespread criticism of the Remain’s camp failure to connect emotionally with the electorate and to make the debate relevant to them. Why were longstanding issues ignored for so long that communities felt this was the only way to make their voices heard? Why had the politicians stopped listening and why had they lost touch with how to articulate a campaign so that it resonated positively with the electorate instead of treading the much criticised path of Project Fear.  The Leave campaign dominated social media in the run-up to the campaign and became the place for debate as trust in the politicians faltered and voters turned to family and friends and communities for advice on the direction they should take.

Then there is the picking over of the arguments and ‘facts’ traded between the in/out campaigns, with sentiments veering from feeling misled to outrage and a demand for a fresh battle based on facts, when the reality is there were few ‘facts’ on which anyone could truly rely. Leaving the EU is to enter uncharted territory and no-one could hand on heart say exactly what would happen next, either before the vote, or it would appear now.

On a referendum with only one question and only two possible outcomes, it was inevitable that the foundation of arguments on both sides would eventually have to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Navel gazing on an unprecedented scale has overwhelmed the political debate since Friday morning, with personality clashes on both sides filling the vacuum left by having no clear strategy and no clear plan of action. What UK businesses need is clarity on jobs, investment and funding.

As politicians from both Remain and Brexit dance around triggering Article 50 and the start of the process of leaving the EU as though they are about to set off a nuclear bomb, the cries of those demanding a fresh referendum from Scotland to Westminster threaten to become deafening, posing a real challenge both to the democratic process both sides profess to hold so dear and to the healing of communities that is so urgently needed.

With elected representatives in Parliament and the electorate apparently on opposing sides, it almost becomes a moot point which side of the political spectrum MPs represent.

Frankly, I don’t care who takes charge of this situation, what party they come from and whether they voted Remain or Leave. What we need now is a great communicator, a great leader, someone with confidence, but not arrogance, prepared to listen and to engage in dialogue with people of all generations, all classes, all communities, inside and outside of the UK. We need someone who can achieve consensus and take forward a clear plan with the authority and integrity that has been so lacking in this campaign.

With each day that passes, this vote takes on bigger and bigger significance as our political establishment turns in on itself. Maybe in the future, we will see new political parties emerge, but for now we need stability, we need certainty and we need answers. So there is no plan, no detailed exit strategy as yet, but delay and indecision will do us no favours as we look to redefine our place on the world stage.

In the meantime, clear positive and ongoing communication from businesses and brands to their stakeholders whether employees, customers or investors is critical, especially for those with European markets, European teams and European stakeholders as we look to ensure we build a positive future for Britain.

We may be far from having all of the answers yet, but business needs to start conversations now with all stakeholders to make considered plans and contingencies and to steady the ship as we enter turbulent waters. Only through strong leadership and with a focus on constructive communications can businesses create and harness the opportunities that change on such an enormous scale will inevitably deliver.