Brexit: failure in negotiation and the need for public relations’ perspective

The Brookings Institution, 14 March 2019, Between Brexit and a Hard Place: “Britain has been exposed as having played a weak hand very badly.”

“Mrs May has made the worst of a bad job,” The Economist editorial, Whatever Next? 16 – 22 March 2019.

One commentator after another has lined up this past week to describe the mess that Britain now finds itself in trying to find ways to make progress on the decision to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

It is a mess created as a result of the approach taken to negotiations conducted since the process of leaving the Union was formally begun two years ago with the UK’s triggering of Article 50.

I’ve had a particular interest in the negotiations, over and above interests as an affected citizen of the UK.

For the past ten years, I’ve worked with institutions of the EU – the Commission, the Parliament and EU agencies – as well as with the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on a number of communication topics, but most recently in discussions with groups of diplomats and other civil servants on aspects of international negotiation.

In these, we’d drawn for reference on the findings of the Harvard Negotiation Project, as useful starting point against which experience of international negotiation can be assessed.

Against principles identified through the project, and even in other material such as The Economist’s A-Z Guide to Negotiation the UK’s approach to negotiations can be – at the very least – found wanting.

Some examples:

As in so many areas of organisational and business life, preparation is key. Preparations for negotiations involves knowing not only what is needed from them, but who the negotiators on the other side will be, what their starting points are, and what perceptions they have of their negotiating partners, their starting points and approaches to negotiation might be (especially important in cross cultural negotiations).

This is where the perspective of public relations is so useful at the start of the process – who are the parties to the negotiations, what is their thinking, what will motivate their behaviour?

The other significant value of the public relations perspective is that it encourages thinking on how support will be realised from significant groups who will be involved in the negotiation, and whose support might be needed to accept and implement the results of the negotiation

By now, it’s widely recognised that Britain had not, at the time of triggering Article 50, worked out what it might want from the negotiations.

Negotiations can be judged in terms of the wisdom of the conclusions reached in the course of negotiations, the timeliness of the negotiation process – did it lead, in a reasonable time, to wise decisions? – and did the negotiation work through and conclude in ways which maintain good relationships between parties to the negotiation (who will need to work together in future).

The wisdom of the results of the UK’s negotiations have been judged twice already in the House of Commons.

Much discussion in the work on negotiation focuses on the importance of the BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement away from the negotiating table. Having a clear and acceptable BATNA strengthens the negotiator. In the Brexit negotiation, the BATNA has always been continuing membership of the European Union – not as has been decided this past week, no deal (‘No deal is better than a bad deal’).

Also much examined in studies of approaches to negotiation has been the value of fixed positions – ‘red lines’ – in negotiations. Do they help or hinder negotiation? The Harvard project emphasizes the need to discuss interests rather than negotiate around fixed positions.  This approach would have helped in dealing with the question of the border in Ireland.

The Harvard project also argues for imagination in negotiations, but red lines close down the possibilities for the exercise of imagination.

We are now where we are.

Time and time in debate in the House of Commons over the past week, speakers have said that we should have used a different approach at the outset of negotiations – before, in fact, when preparations were made for invoking Article 50 and for the coming negotiations.

A different approach might have benefited from the perspective that can be brought to decision-making by public relations, but conclusions on that suggestion will have to wait for the coming post mortem on the Brexit negotiations.

The CIPR recently published new guidance for members on Brexit. Download here.

Image courtesy of flickr user ChiralJon

Dr Jon White, FCIPR, is a consultant and visiting professor at Henley Business School and Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC).

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