This autumn, we enter a period the like of which very few have witnessed, with no precedent to guide us and where our usual crisis comms approaches are of little use.
After Theresa May’s closing speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, there is no doubt that the economy has ceased to be the top priority for the Government. This should shock us all. For the May administration, delivering on the Brexit vote and addressing immigration are the priorities, and everything else must be considered in this context.
For most organisations used to communicating and lobbying in a pre-referendum world, this brings enormous challenges. The intensity of the referendum campaign and the scale of the Brexit risk meant many organisations and businesses invested significant time and effort taking a position and even more time communicating it to their internal and external audiences. Yes, some were more public than others, but the majority will have at least insured ministers were aware of their views.
Now that we find ourselves in a world where 'Brexit means Brexit', these organisations are in a tricky situation. Having been on the losing side of the argument, not only do they have to come to terms with the thing they argued against being something the Government is committed to delivering, they also have to find a position where they can communicate the importance of delivering a 'good' Brexit.
Organisations have to ensure that the needs of their sector or business are seen as red lines in the negotiations with Europe, even if the politics of the situation feels like this is becoming harder to deliver with each passing day. The difficulty of navigating this is compounded by reports of divisions within Government on what kind of Brexit they will be demanding from the EU, beyond one which 'works for Britain.'
The political calculation May made, which has put her squarely on the side of those who voted for Brexit, brings reputational challenges for companies and organisations too. It will be all too easy for companies to be dragged into the firing line as a result of clumsily adopting a position that would have been a no-brainer before the referendum, but which now is interpreted as counter to the wishes of the people, or seen as putting the interests of big business ahead of those at the sharp end of globalisation.
The Autumn Statement on 23 November is a key moment for comms activity. Now that the economy is taking second place to Brexit, communicators will need to find sophisticated strategies to turn this to their advantage. The triggering of Article 50 by March 2017 at the latest has added a sense of urgency to comms activity. If lobbying opportunities are not taken before 23 November, public affairs practitioners may not get another chance to make their case before Article 50 is triggered.
Michelle Di Leo is director, partner and head of public affairs, UK, at FleishmanHillard Fishburn