We’ve now had some time to cogitate over the Brexit referendum. Communication experts have frothed at how things should, could, would have happened if this, that and the other had been done.
Regardless of all that gnashing of teeth, we are where we are and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (I’m not even going to start to unpack that). Uncertainty has become a feature of the UK’s political and economic narrative. And the referendum result has created a degree of cognitive dissonance amongst those, globally, who took even a vague interest in Her Majesty’s Sceptred Isle. What many had in mind when they thought of Brits took quite a severe knock on 23rd June 2016. Apart from the uncertainty of foreign businesses, many sentiments abroad rest around the notion that ‘we thought we understood what Britain stood for, but now we’re not so sure’. Of that, there is little uncertainty, and is unaffected by whether actual Brexit will be a success or not, or whether you support it or not.
From these circumstances, two points are of note.
The success or not of the pro- and anti-Brexit campaigns utterly demonstrated the centrality, utility and essence of strategic communication. The successes and failures were not borne directly of the content, arguments or rhetoric, but can be found in the crucible of concepts, tone and understanding fired up way before campaigning started. In that crucible a reaction takes place – visceral understanding of popular concerns, public needs, information ecology, media landscape, stakeholder mapping subsequently applied to rigorous analysis and clear-headed strategic thinking leading to defined objectives, creative ideas, and organic coherence. Or not. This is what creates the environment, practically, philosophically and psychologically, within which communications professionals, and others, can then freely operate. Or not. As such, strategic communication is not a function exclusive to communication professionals but owned and contributed to by many.
Crudely put, it sets out style and substance before the action kicks off, before any tweet or Facebook update, before any media interviews or leaflets. That is true strategic communication. And if it fails, as Admiral Mike Mullen (Ex-NATO Commander) once claimed in regard to the Taliban, the most sophisticated and well resourced communication campaigns end up ‘being outdone by men in caves’. The cave analogy aside, the pro-Brexit campaign had better ingredients thrown into their crucible and mixed them effectively.
Secondly, aside from the monumental economic, political and legal issues, the challenges with regards to steadying our currently jittery national narrative, to possibly having to tinker with our once reliable engine of soft power, to creating some form of coherence out of dissonance while competing national factions bicker, are utterly enormous. As the prime drivers of the UK’s public (and obviously traditional) diplomacy, the staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – in essence, the UK’s public relations department – have before them communication challenges as difficult, complex and potentially exciting, as the nation has ever seen. The urgency and import of the task cannot be overstated. If anything, Diplomacy and Information have quickly become the prime levers of the UK’s national power, and need urgent investment, not least in effective strategic communication, as described above.
In these uncertain times for the UK, there will be loud calls to communicate to the world urgently, many will call for a degree of coordination or to communicate strategically. But without real investment in that crucible of true strategic communication, via key ingredients of time, resources and sheer cerebral energy, the UK may not be outdone by others but undone by its own avoidable failures.
Written by our Director of Training, Jem Thomas