Comms Strategy: What Can We Learn From Brexit?

By Carolyn Lochhead

Reflect on your day so far. Even if it’s early, you’ve probably handled many different issues. Perhaps you’ve coerced children out of bed, checked the day’s headlines or navigated busy traffic. You might have taken phone calls, chaired meetings or made decisions about priorities big and small. Comms people are busy, and it can be hard to reflect fully on all the choices we make.

Yet we must. Because each decision builds on the previous one, and if we’re not paying full attention, we might end up conveying an entirely different message to the one you intended.

Take, for example, the years leading up to the Brexit referendum.

The EU is a complicated series of structures, laws, treaties and representatives. It is not an obvious choice if you’re looking to construct a new Public Enemy Number One. I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and thinking,

“Gah, that Directive 2000/53/EC On End-Of-Life Vehicles! I must vanquish it and all its creators!”

And yet, in 2015, over 17 million people were sufficiently exercised about it to go and cast their vote to leave the EU.

Why? Lots of reasons have been proffered – an effective narrative, the complacency of Remainers, the misuse of Facebook data, genuine concern about the EU’s effectiveness, public concern about immigration, claims about a post-EU future that were, at best, breathtakingly optimistic. No doubt there is truth in all of these. But I’d argue that none of these would have succeeded without one additional factor.

People in this country had been told repeatedly that the EU was bad: by the very same people who then campaigned to remain a part of it.

For years, newspapers ran stories about the EU’s ineptitude, laxness with public funds, obsession with controlling our lives and, of course, determination to stamp out bendy bananas. Maybe centrist politicians weren’t always the source of these stories – but you’d be hard-pressed to find an example of them speaking up in the EU’s support.

The EU was a useful distraction, deployed by lazy politicians instead of challenging the argument or accepting responsibility for whatever the problem was. Headline after headline talked of Eurocrats and bonkers EU rules, and few contradicted them, because it was convenient to have someone to blame. The problem was, people believed it.

This is not actually that surprising. Indeed, if it were possible for newspapers to spend decades reporting a particular point of view without anyone coming to accept it, I’d suggest that both editors and advertisers would be rethinking the purpose of print media. But by the time David Cameron pressed the big red Referendum button, it was too late to change enough people’s minds.

So there are lessons here for us all. Every decision has both short and long-term consequences, and both must be considered before you take action. If you put out a response to a news story, it might get you on the telly or trending on Facebook that evening, but does it support the longer-term story you’re trying to tell? Or does it in fact undermine it?

We need to consider every decision in the context of both its immediate impact and its potential effect further down the line. And we need to check in with our key audiences regularly. Do your audiences think what you think they think? And are your communications shaping their views in ways you might not have anticipated? How will you know, if you don’t ask?

No doubt there will be many lessons from Brexit, both political and professional. And of the most important is this: short-term campaign strategies might get your social numbers or your brand recognition up, but if they harm your long-term survival, you probably need to think again.

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