The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union is totally unprecedented. How best to communicate the various aspects of Brexit presents its own challenges, including how to get a meaningful message across when everyone else is shouting about the same thing.
Everyone is talking about Brexit and the sheer volume of information being shared means messages risk being lost in the maelstrom of Twitter activity and press releases. This ‘too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth’ attitude was one of the main points to emerge at a EURACTIV event held yesterday (27 April).
The “What does Brexit mean for your organisation?” event gathered trade associations, corporate representatives and political players from the Brussels political landscape.
Audience members and the panellists agreed that communicating and engaging with every aspect of Brexit is not the preferred strategy, as messages will ultimately end up in a “black hole”. Instead, well-timed, meaningful comms work is the aim of the game.
There was also a consensus that it is important to be prudent about who to communicate with, be it through social media or with so-called ‘quality’ media.
Although numerous sectors and interests were represented at the event, most people agreed that the public debate about Brexit is now too emotional to be influenced by arguments based on harsh realities and mass media engagement.
Nevertheless, in terms of what kind of information needs to be shared, most participants agreed that whatever the message is, it has to be fact-based. But given the uncertainty the Brexit vote and triggering of Article 50 have caused, it is debatable what is fact and what is speculation.
Former Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff, one of the panellists, insisted that enough hard facts are out there already, including issues such as the UK leaving the Customs Union, and that there are people in Brussels who still believe that Westminster will not go through with Brexit.
One audience member revealed that Wall Street’s attitude is not entirely different and that Brexit is talked about in the same way as the Millennium bug was towards the end of the 1990s, in that it will eventually turn out to be not as bad as predicted.
The computer bug, also known as Y2K, was anticipated to cause global problems at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1999 as computer systems would be unable to distinguish between the year 2000 and 1900. A minority even predicted a doomsday scenario involving nuclear weapon launches and killer robots. The issue was of course resolved.
Timing is an all-important aspect of activities like lobbying. Getting your message out there as early as possible is the Holy Grail and Brexit is no different.
The European Commission gave Brussels a glimpse of ‘what could have been’ this week, when it published a point-by-point demolition of the Hungarian government’s “Stop Brussels” initiative.
It was released to coincide with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s appearance before the European Parliament and was an effective fact-based response to the fake news that had been levied at the EU executive.
Many EU policy observers pointed out that this is exactly the type of communication that the Commission should have released before the UK referendum last year.
The remaining eight months of this year will see the beginning of the Brexit negotiations, a long-awaited conclusion to France’s presidential race, a snap general election in the UK and federal elections in Germany.
Members of the panel explained that although the UK’s election is a disruptive force, given that it moves the goalposts once again, it does at least provide another platform from which to communicate.
Others lamented the fact the snap vote means the British government is now in a state of ‘election purdah’ where Westminster will be prevented from communicating any aspects of policy, so as to not gain an advantage ahead of polls opening on 8 June.
Brussels is the place to be for transparency, as it is evident that London is in somewhat of a state of panic, where only communication with a positive message is allowed out of Whitehall. This was perfectly demonstrated by UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s comments yesterday that the EU-27 is “lining up to oppose” Britain.
The European Council meets tomorrow (29 April) to sign off on negotiating guidelines for the mammoth talks ahead. They are due to start after the June election.
Trade associations, the industry and maybe even the Commission itself will certainly have meaningful messages to communicate once negotiators get into the fine detail of the UK’s divorce.