Lessons From Brexit: How Not To Communicate Your Cause
Have you ever told a story badly?
Have you ever been in a meeting and you’re trying to get a point across, but as you talk, your previous sky-high confidence in your idea starts to plummet without a parachute as you can feel the oxygen being sucked out of the room. And a single line starts to spin around your mind: “They’re not getting it.”
It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s even worse when you don’t know how to get that safety ‘chute working either. Well, imagine telling a story so badly that you lose a referendum. Or imagine telling it so badly you win a referendum but then everything falls apart before the victory celebrations can even begin. People throughout the world witnessed this when they awoke on the morning of Friday June 24, 2016 as news of the UK’s EU referendum result started to trickle through.
The choice had been seemingly simple– should the UK remain part of the European Union? But what happened next (and what is continuing to unfold as we speak) are recriminations on both sides for messages poorly communicated, and promises undelivered.
So what business lessons can we take away from the UK’s EU referendum debacle? And is it possible to learn from mistakes made on both the Leave and Remain sides, and apply them to how we communicate in our organizations?
From Politics To Business: Be Careful What You Claim
The full ramifications of this decision may well take years to play out. However, if events in the immediate aftermath are anything to go by, they will be serious ramifications indeed. So far we have seen the resignation of the country’s Prime Minister, a vote of no confidence in the leader of its main opposition, a call for a second referendum on Scottish independence, questions raised about the possible reunification of Ireland, a downgrading of the UK’s credit rating from AAA to AA, and a currency crash that has shaken the world.
So let’s look at some of the key communication failures and pick out those important lessons.
Starting with the Leave campaign, the key issue was providing misleading information. Take the pledge emblazoned on the side of a much-photographed campaign bus: “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead." It’s a great claim, punchy and goes straight to what people care about most: National Health Service. So what’s wrong with this claim?
Well, for starters, the UK doesn’t give the EU anywhere near that amount. According to the independent fact-checking charity Full Fact, the real figure is closer to £250 million per week.
The Leave campaign deliberately misled about the amount of money the UK sends to the EU.
This was confirmed when just hours after the referendum result came in, chief Leave campaigner Nigel Farage labeled the claim a mistake. (He has since resigned as leader of the UKIP party.)
The second big issue (for some, it was the first) was the assurance that a departure from the EU would result in tighter border controls and a fall in the number of migrant workers entering the UK from Europe. When the smoke cleared the day after the referendum, another prominent Leave campaigner, Nigel Evans, said there had been a misunderstanding regarding the correlation between leaving the EU and immigration, concluding that he didn’t expect immigration levels to fall as a result of the referendum result.
Here we are seeing what happens when people over-promise and under-deliver. In business (just like in political campaigns) it’s easy to focus on areas that will strike a chord with the audience, but doing so at all costs can mean facts are omitted, distorted, and in some cases completely fabricated. When the truth inevitably comes out, everyone has to backtrack and confidence from voters (or your employees or customers) declines. Brands get damaged, perhaps irreparably.
It’s vital to remember that when conveying any message throughout your business that transparency is key, even if adding a spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down. If your audience believes you are lying to them, or even finds out at a later date, you will be immediately discredited and lose any trust that was one placed in you by your teams.
Communication 101: Don’t Make Assumptions
On the Remain side, the lesson is clear. And that's to be careful in making assumptions. To start, they assumed voters already had knowledge of the workings of the EU and the potential ramifications of either staying or leaving. Then they assumed that the majority of the population thought the same way that they did: the EU, while not perfect, provided much more to the UK than it took away.
Big mistake. The Remain camp failed to get their point across with any clarity, which ultimately lost them the referendum.
In business, the take-away here is to make the assumed explicit. This is according to business coach and advisor Chris Lema. He stresses the importance of challenging those in your organization to consider what assumptions they hold about business practices and strategy and take ownership of imparting that knowledge to others in the company.
Remember: poor communication is a choice. Whether you are failing to get your point across due to assumption, deception, a fear of confrontation, or anything else, the results are the same. So stop, and ask yourself whether you are doing all you can to deliver your message.
If not, it’s time to change tack before it’s too late.
It’s striking that many Leave voters now appear to be suffering from what’s being dubbed “Bregret.” Essentially, they voted to leave, and now, they wish they hadn’t. Why? Because they didn’t really understand the implications from the choices on offer. What’s so worrying is that with better communication from both sides, voters would at least have been able to come away feeling they had made an informed decision– whichever camp they had chosen.
If communication can be so poorly executed regarding a matter of this magnitude, how sure can you be that you’re getting it right within your business?
It has to be said that communicating a point is not always easy, especially when you are looking to persuade your audience. The temptation to veer from the truth or manipulate facts to deceive or mislead can be overpowering. At the other end of the scale, it can be easy to get complacent and just assume everyone is already aware of the facts, thinks along the same lines as you, and doesn’t really need convincing of anything at all.
As we have seen from the EU referendum, the consequences of communicating in this manner can be severe. The onus therefore is on business owners and managers to ensure all decisions that are taken have been discussed clearly, honestly, openly. And most of all, to stress again, with full transparency.
That means everyone needs to be on the same side, and they need to be on-message. David Cameron failed to communicate to his own party the importance of displaying unity over “Remain.” His Conservative party was split with leading politicians including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith publicly defying their party leader. Perhaps because of this disunity, the £350 million per week NHS claim from the Leave camp that could have been easily debunked ended up becoming a pivotal part of the Remain strategy. The consequences for this kind of action in business would be equally disastrous; a situation where senior managers are not behind the CEO’s message can only lead to growing problems across an organization. Once a split develops, it’s very difficult to close it.
Over on the opposition benches, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn headed up a party that appeared to be united on the EU. But he failed to truly communicate to his supporters and members the importance of voting Remain. Aside from the occasional speech extolling the virtues of Europe, Corbyn spent much of the campaign on the sidelines, with many speculating that he was not fully committed to the cause. Again, he didn’t get everyone behind the single message.
In a business context, how are employees, let alone clients and customers, supposed to know what your company is, where it is heading, and what it believes, when no one seems to be on the same page? The learning here is that once the message is set, everyone needs to get behind it.
Before You Talk, Start By Listening
There’s no question that the Remain camp failed to listen. Voters were making their feelings on immigration clear and rather than allay these fears through common sense, the Remain team simply ignored them– perhaps believing the anti-immigration/anti-EU feeling in the UK was not as prevalent as many feared.
Remain ended up focusing too strongly on gloomy economic forecasts, trying to persuade voters to back Remain or be thrown into another recession. But it didn’t work. Had they better gauged public mood they may have known that many voters, particularly in poorer parts of the country, had heard these warnings many times before and no longer believe such doomsday proclamations.
In the end, the people of the UK choose to leave the European Union– or rather 52% of them did. The true ramifications of the decision (providing of course that it goes through as planned) will not be known for years.
But for anyone in business, it’s clear that an open and honest message, which is delivered by a unified team, is the only way to be heard loud and clear.
Related: How To Crisis-Proof Your Business