As a seasoned communications professional, I believe in the power of ideas to change the world. Yet, I am often reminded of the limitations of my field, as every day brings a new cautionary tale of hype and hubris. No lesson is more timely than Britain’s exit, or “Brexit,” from the European Union. As Prime Minister Theresa May seeks to convince her party and the nation that she is delivering the European divorce that she promised at the beginning of her term, she is struggling to live up to her own spin. This is a classic tale of tactics winning out over strategy.
First, some background… Britain joined the European club in 1973, the year I was born. Like many of my peers, I consider myself a proud European, with all the advantages that our little red passport conferred—worry-free travel to twenty-seven other countries, the ability to work anywhere in the union and unfettered access to the fruits of other cultures. When roughly half the British electorate voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, I was devastated.
My grandmother was born in the first few months of World War I; my mother a couple of years after World War II. We lost family members in both conflicts and grew up in the fractured aftermath of this collective insanity. The European Union was a guarantee that it would never happen again. France and Germany were tied together by economic self-interest, as their coal and steel industries formed the bedrock of the nascent union, along with other former combatants—Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Britain chose to go it alone, with a rigid belief in Queen and Empire. Yet, the vast network of colonies was quickly dissolving, as countries that fought bravely for the Allies claimed their right to independence. Not only was the end of the Empire a blow to British prestige, it was also a blow to its economy.
As the benefits of joining the European Union became apparent, Britain soon decided to join the club. Britain needed to be a part of the Union for economic reasons, but it never really bought into the idea of Europe. In fact, Brits still call it “The Continent” and refer to the capital in Brussels as a far-off land where the moneyed elites waste everyone's time with ridiculous rules. The British media added to this sense of otherness, by continually mocking “Eurocrats” and producing a steady stream of xenophobic content. This anti-European campaign added weight to a prevailing sense of British Exceptionalism that defied the reality of post-colonial Britain.
As a multi-cultural child, I moved between England, Belgium and France, experiencing these tensions first-hand. However, the great unspoken truth about Brits is that most of us are xenophiles. We love other countries, their sunshine, their food and their wine. We like to complain about Europeans, but we secretly love being in the Union, albeit on the fringes. Conversely, Europeans find Brits to be difficult, even impossible at times, but they love us like a cranky relative who occasionally surprises the family with a cool head and generosity in times of need.
Britain is a valued and valuable partner in the European Union, but many Brits fear the loss of their national identity and sovereignty. A splinter group of the Conservative government, the right-wing Euroskeptics, managed to exploit this fear and finagled a referendum on leaving the European Union. Using very basic but powerful public relations tactics playing to people’s emotions, they swayed public opinion, much to the dismay of the rest of the nation, Europe and the world.
In a foreshadowing of the Trump presidential campaign, the Euroskeptics developed a few simple messages preying on people’s fears—about immigrants, bureaucrats and elites—and hammered them relentlessly to win the campaign at all costs. In so doing, they pursued a golden oldie PR approach, that no publicity is bad publicity; the more attention-grabbing and pervasive, the better. These old-school tactics favor publicity stunts that are high on emotion and short on facts, rather than well-researched strategies focused on long-term goals, audience insights, tailored messaging, targeted actions and regular measurement of efforts. Any communications professional worth her or his salt knows that these are the foundations of successful campaigns for long-lasting change. The Euroskeptics may have won a battle, but lost the war.
The short-sighted Euroskeptic campaign promised that, if Britain were to leave the Union, the country would regain its sovereignty. All of the emphasis went into winning the referendum. There was no post-referendum strategy. The underlying selling point was that Britain would go back to the good old days of the Empire, while still enjoying all the benefits of partnership with Europe. However, the “Brexiteers” committed one of the cardinal sins of communications: You can make bold, outrageous claims about a product or brand to attract attention, but you then have to meet people’s expectations. In this instance, the Euroskeptics promised that Britain would be better off economically outside the Union and could leave without repercussions. As post-referendum research has shown, neither of these scenarios seem likely.
Now that the terms of separation are finalized, it is clear that the European Union has the upper hand. In exchange for business as usual, Britain will have to agree to abide by the club’s rules and regulations, while enjoying fewer benefits, which is hardly the Brexit that was sold to the British public. Despite her bluster, Theresa May knows this. Yet, she is trying every trick and tactic in the crisis communications playbook to spin the public’s focus away from her deficient promises and her defective product—Brexit. Ultimately, as in any organization, responsibility belongs at the very top. Prime Minister May will not be able to deflect the blame for a lack of a strategy to implement Brexit and will likely take the fall for her party’s miscalculations.
If Britain does leave the European Union through a “hard Brexit,” it will likely be an unmitigated disaster for the average citizen. While the cultural and emotional fears that drove the Brexit campaign are unlikely to subside, the all-too-real threat of economic turmoil is already sending shivers down the collective spine of the business community. Yet, all is not lost. As a communicator, I believe that every crisis presents an opportunity. It is not too late for pro-European campaigners to develop a strategy to convince the British population that the deal they already have is far better than any Brexit promise. In the final few weeks of negotiations, there is still time to make the case for continued membership in the Union. Until now, the EU has failed to make the case for its work being relevant—vital even—to its citizens. The so-called “Eurocrats” have been handed a golden opportunity to leave the confines of their ivory towers in Brussels and have an engaging conversation with the people they represent. This could give momentum to the movement to hold a second referendum—artfully nick-named “the People’s Referendum”—and to reconsider Britain’s role in shaping the future of Europe, which is a worthy long-term goal.
Hopefully, both camps will come to a pragmatic solution that keeps Britain in the European Union as a major player. Either way, there is a moral to this story: think through your goals and create a long-term strategy, or suffer the consequences. If you manipulate people for short-term gains, they will eventually figure it out, your brand will suffer irreparable damage and any success will be fleeting. Every organization needs a long-term plan or face the prospect of a crisis. However, even in the midst of a crisis, there are still opportunities to correct course and find a compromise. It’s never too late to think strategically. As Sun Tzu wrote in the 5th Century BCE, "Every battle is won or lost before it's ever fought."