Four ways Theresa May's comms team is about to enter a PR minefield, at home and abroad

Prime Minister Theresa May has officially notified the EU that the UK is leaving. Her historic letter to European Council president Donald Tusk has triggered Article 50 and formally set in motion two years of negotiations. If all goes to plan, Brexit will take place in March 2019.

Theresa May's comms team will have to navigate a minefield, writes Connor Mitchell
Theresa May's comms team will have to navigate a minefield, writes Connor Mitchell

May's comms team now has its work well and truly cut out. Not only must it present the PM’s talks in a way that appeases both Leavers and Remainers at home, it will also be fighting to create the right negotiating environment with the EU27 abroad.

And this must all be done without unveiling her hand too early.

When the negotiations get under way, there are a number of areas where the team will be under pressure:

First, clarity is needed to maintain public trust.

The Government must adopt a corporate-style approach to its communications. Keeping the public updated on the personal impact of the negotiations will be priority number one in 2017. The lack of clarity surrounding the status of EU nationals has already wreaked havoc. Above all else there must be clear lines and strong messages. 

Second, immigration and sovereignty must be front and centre.

The PM’s core audience is Leavers. She must keep them on-side at all costs. That means, right from the get-go, she must focus her message on immigration and sovereignty, presenting her negotiation intentions as a courageous, swashbuckling attempt to take back control of UK borders and laws. Her early adoption of Brexiteer rhetoric already shows that she’s willing to emulate the language of Vote Leave to ensure she sets the right tone.  

Third, it’s the economy, stupid.

Although the 'Remain' campaign’s case was predicated on the economic risk of Brexit, it failed to convince voters in the polls. But that was then, and this is now. May’s team must relentlessly justify the economic case for every move she makes. One wrong communication, or any hint that the big beasts of the City will not get the same benefits they currently enjoy inside the single market, and they could run for the hills of Dublin or Frankfurt. Businesses need to buy into the PM’s approach.

Fourth, the divorce bill can be used to her advantage. 

Although not yet confirmed, if the UK does indeed have to pay the £50bn divorce bill, her team’s crisis comms expertise will be pushed to the limit. Their best ploy would be to treat it as an opportunity to stoke up anti-EU sentiment. She can then use it as a patriotic platform. This could work well. When the message is right, emotion can trump pragmatism and it may even fend off the barrage of parliamentary criticism she is certain to face.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the negotiations, one thing is clear: the words ‘Brexit means Brexit’ cannot form the basis of the Government’s communications strategy over the course of the next 730 days.

Connor Mitchell co-led Labour Leave’s press office during the EU referendum campaign

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