What should PRs do about the referendum on Europe?

With the Conservative election victory, a referendum on EU membership is now inevitable. The speculation over the political and economic impact will reach new peaks but, at a more practical level, what does a PR practitioner need to do now to prepare?

Work out your position on the referendum in good time, warns Paddy Herridge
Work out your position on the referendum in good time, warns Paddy Herridge
Take a position
While commonplace in the US, it is relatively rare for UK businesses to take explicit political positions. However, given the potential impact of the decision on UK businesses, any PR should expect to be asked for their company’s view on the matter.  

As such, PR should play a central role in deciding the company’s position. This might be led by the CEO’s views, by business expediency or by head office but, whatever the reason, it needs to be decided and to be supported by a clear rationale. 
And don’t think that agnosticism is an easy option – not committing is as much a statement about a business as coming down on either side so should be supported by just as much planning and rationale.

Communicating the position
The next challenge to be dealt with is communicating the agreed position. Internal audiences should come first. Staff will hold a range of views on the issue so holding a corporate line while accepting a variance of views from team members is vital. More importantly, communication on the issue must go up as well as down – in an international business it is important that overseas offices understand the position and can justify it to their local audiences when asked.

Externally, there needs to be a similar level of planning. A ‘no’ vote could have a significant impact on relationships with customers, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders. The potential outcome for each of these audiences should be established and the company’s response planned and communicated. 
While it is likely that, in the long term, free trade between the EU and UK will continue, the short-term impact of a Brexit could be costly for those who haven’t prepared their processes and customers to deal with any short-term bumps in the road.

Logistical planning
As well as planning for the political outcomes, there are also logistical considerations for which any PR person should be planning.  
At a simple level, we know from the Scottish example that referenda can be hugely disruptive – political and media debate will be 100 per cent focused on the issue for a period of time, sucking the air out of other conversations for the duration.  

While the timing is currently unclear, as soon as a date is announced then PR schedules should be revisited to ensure that major announcements aren’t lost in the landslide of EU debate.

The timing, question, outcome and impact of a referendum remain unknown but there is still much that can be planned for.  Whether you’re in or out on the day, every comms professional needs to be in planning mode right now.

Paddy Herridge is UK managing director of MWWPR

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