Three things communicators can tell you about Brexit

Watching the unfolding Brexit situation in the last few days, I’m reminded of three lessons that any experienced change communicator will have learnt.


Whilst you shouldn’t draw too many parallels between states and corporations in transition, there are some similarities that our leaders do well to bear in mind.

  • Are we divided or are we united?

If you force people to make a binary choice you will always get a strange view of their attitudes.  Anyone who has worked with opinion data will know that humans are an incredibly diverse bunch and judging a population on the basis of a crude in or out vote is always misleading.

Years of running employee surveys in the face of change have taught me that a 50:50 split in attitudes could mean a number of things.

It could imply that everyone is implacably opposed to each other; there may be well defined battle lines.  The referendum result could be interpreted as evidence that the UK is deeply divided society, ready to start a civil war.

But the reality is often very different.

If you offer people a scale on which to explain their attitudes you can get a very different picture.  Where people have very similar views you will see them clustering around the middle of the range.  But if you reduce the choice down to a simple yes or no, or a remain or a leave you create a false impression of rigid opposition when people actually mostly see eye to eye and have only subtle disagreements.

Without hard data about the nuances of why people voted as they did, we should be wary of claims about what the Brexit mandate really extends to.  All we know is that Brits think we should leave the EU – everything else is moot.

  • You promised what people THINK you promised

Within hours of the result, politicians were explaining that they hadn’t made promises about the speed of the exit, the diversion of funds into the Health Service and even whether or not migration would be curtailed.  Although they might be able to explain they that they personally didn’t make a specific promise, that probably won’t wash.

When you work in communication you learn pretty early on that it’s not you said that matters; it’s what people felt you were expressing that counts.

I worked in a company where no one had had a pay rise for years.  But when the HR Director said he needed a review to address some salary discrepancies, all people heard was the word “review”.  And when a HRD announces a pay review people expect there to be a pay hike.

It was a pretty impossible job trying to explain that the HR team wasn’t led by a crew of untrustworthy promise-breakers.

If politicians were happy to let people believe that there would be a funding bonanza for hospitals, that entry to the UK would require a visa and that the UK would be out faster than England exits Euro2016, it’s going to be hard to look honest in the coming months.

  • It’s not over until it’s over

Time and again I have worked on corporate transformation programmes that changed their scope multiple times.  The goals you announce at the start of the transformation are rarely the same after a few months; as events unfold, as problems develop and opportunities emerge, leaders always shift the goalposts.

Experience teaches me that with a two year timetable for Brexit, almost anything could happen.  The EU might collapse, Donald Trump might start a trade war, the two main British Political parties might self destruct and the possible demise of the City of London could give Brexit a very different meaning.

I’m sure experienced communicators around the world are already pointing out 101 other lessons that could be applied to the transformation of the UK.

After just three days I know that few of the things we are hearing now will be relevant in a few week.  Brits will all turn out to be consensus-driven after all; politicians who were happy to mislead will be punished by their electorates.  And, most significantly, the outcome we end up will be very different from anything any of us expected.

 Originally published on LinkedIn on June 27 2016.