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Brexit: What Corporate Communicators Should Be Doing

Agile planning, listening, and open dialogue are at the core of a smart, engaging post-Brexit Communications strategy

As the stalemate of Brexit negotiations persist, uncertainty – not crisis or change – remains the immediate concern for corporate communications teams.

While all corporate functions are working out their best course of action in an unprecedented situation, five challenges stand out for most comms teams at present.

  1. Flawed perceptions: Given the novelty and complexity of the situation, as well as overwhelming media coverage, a company’s “stakeholders” (employees, investors, suppliers, customers) may form flawed ideas about Brexit’s impact on the company and themselves personally.

  2. Increased employee stress: Any unexpected news makes employees feel less in control, and could harm their ability to do their jobs.

  3. No definite answers: Nothing is guaranteed and there are no examples to follow, so communicators cannot rely on senior execs to have all the answers and provide guidance on the topic without support.

  4. Multiple scenarios: The impact of Brexit is likely to have several possible outcomes, each with different implications for the company.

  5. Ebbs and flows: The situation will develop rapidly in one week, which will mean a sudden overload of work for comms teams, followed by – often longer – lulls when there’s little of substance to communicate.

Five Solutions

Despite the unexpected referendum result meaning a much more hectic start to the summer than most corporate communicators were likely imagining, it does provide an opportunity to show why a communications strategy is an important part of any business.

Stepping in during a turbulent time is a good way for Communications to demonstrate the practicality of its work in creating the strong culture of trust and openness that is so crucial during periods of uncertainty.

And, with that practicality in mind, there are a number of things that communicators can do now to help their companies through the five challenges above. Each of these come from a webinar that CEB held for its member network of comms professionals and saw contributions from senior communicators at Ernst & Young and HSBC.

  1. Establish listening forums to understand stakeholder perceptions: The comms team at HSBC developed an “Exchange Program,” which gives leaders the opportunity to meet with employees and hear them talk about what concerns them most. Key themes from these discussions are then reported to the communications team to help them track employee sentiment, and help the leadership team identify any issues to address.

    Another panelist at the webinar added that showing you are listening is one of the best ways to make communications seem more “human” (and less corporate) during uncertainty. Some companies adapted a number of their existing channels to allow employees to have an open conversation about Brexit concerns.

    This becomes especially important if affected employees then need to go and interact with clients, the panelist explained. If the comms teams can help leaders instill a sense of calm and stability in employees, then it’s more likely that employees will project that outside of the business as well.

  2. Build employee capability to alleviate stress: The more employees get stressed, the more they are likely to move into “fight or flight” mode, and productivity is likely to slump due to panic or inertia. It’s communicators’ role to prevent this and help employees’ performance to continue undimmed.

    One panelist emphasized that over-communicating internally or serving as the source of Brexit news is pointless for Communications right now – employees already get enough of that from the media and their peers. It’s much more productive for Comms to help employees focus their attention on what they do have control over, such as their day-to-day tasks.

    CEB research also shows that improving employee capability to cope with change is the most effective way to sustain performance through a period of transition or uncertainty. Taking a “business-as-usual” approach – until there is more clarity about both the situation and the company’s response – will decrease the risk of poor productivity.

  3. Help leaders, managers conduct open, honest dialogue: Guide your company’s leaders though the “Power of 3” model (see chart 1 for more detail). Show them it’s okay to say, “This is what I know, this is what I don’t know yet, and this is what I’d like you to know, feel, and do right now.”


    Power of 3 model

    Chart 1: Power of 3 model  Source: CEB analysis


    So in the Brexit context, a leader might say:

    I know that this is probably stressful time for everyone. But I also know that the company has developed a taskforce to handle all Brexit-related issues and that we’ve conducted contingency planning to help us adapt to different scenarios.

    What I don’t know right now is:

    • What this will mean for the UK market

    • When we’ll have more updates to share

    • Or What the specific impact will be for our business

    But I’d like you to know that we’ll communicate frequently to keep you up to speed. I hope you feel reassured that we are committed to supporting all of our employees across the company.

  4. Ensure messages are simple, but ‘made’ to stick: The MADE acronym is a helpful tool that comms teams can use to remind leaders to focus on (see chart 2 for more detail).

    • MESSAGE –what’s the key point you’re trying to communicate?

    • ACTION –what do you need from your audience –whether that’s employees or stakeholders?

    • DETAIL – what are the additional facts or points that your audience should know

    • EXAMPLES –what stories, anecdotes, past experiences or evidence can you include here to bring the message to life?


    MADE Methodology

    Chart 2: MADE methodology  Source: CEB analysis


  5. Serialize messages and offer on-demand information: Given no-one knows when the UK will actually exit the EU –and the impact that Brexit will have – there will be vastly differing peaks and troughs in the amount of information to communicate.

    As such, it’s important that comms teams serialize their messages. So instead of making a plan now for every single piece of communication on Brexit that will go out over the coming months, communicators should build each message as they go and pause to listen to audience reactions after each message before they build the next (see chart 3).


    Message serialization

    Chart 3: Message serialization  Source: CEB analysis


    One panelist explained that over-planning at the moment is impractical simply because there is too much uncertainty. It is better to be purposeful in segmenting the audiences you are communicating to, and consider their needs while simultaneously developing some overrarching principles that Comms will continue to deploy consistently throughout the Brexit process.

More On…

  • Webinar: The C-Suite Response to Brexit

    Learn what executives are focusing on in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, and get some practical advice from practitioners and experts on how to formulate a strong response plan.

  • CEB Communications Newsletter

    Sign-up for our bi-weekly newsletter to receive the latest best practices and insights from across internal and corporate communications, plus information on upcoming professional development programs.

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