Why selling in Brexit needs the PR masterplan of the century

When the head of communications for Britain's Exit from the European Union was appointed, the successful candidate inherited a 12-month legacy of confusing negative messaging, infrequent ministerial statements and misinformed citizens.

The mission now is to find the elusive words that tame the chaotic turbulence swirling round the increasingly digital media marketplace to meet some tough communications challenges.

Also see: The British Election Study shows how business can contribute to the Brexit debate

Looking ahead to the end of the communicator’s two-year contract, a positive PR outcome is visible if the Department for Exiting the European Union has done its homework, but it’s going to take a lot of semantic reframing to make the inevitable Brexit a brand people understand, accept, respect and support.

Successful public relations consists of three main thrusts: creating awareness, effective communicating and winning converts.

In this case, the head of comms won’t have any problem at all with awareness, as Brexit was easily the biggest news story of 2016 and continues to make the front pages of the nationals on an almost daily basis, albeit retailed with consistent editorial bias and emotional heuristic cues.

Setting up effective communicating is the first hole to ace.

It can’t all be one-way traffic, though, as citizens need to ask questions have their say, understand what’s happening when and actively participate in an ongoing discussion.

Engagement is the PR buzzword of the 21st century and that means healthy dialogue, empathising with the public’s concerns in forums where everyone feels equal and empowered to express their thoughts, emotions and passions.

By inaugurating a spirit of collaboration and community orientation, trust grows, commitment to the relationship between citizens and the Department for Exiting the European Union blossoms, and general satisfaction with the way communications are being handled soars.

The turbulence may then gradually transcend into the safety of reasoned debate; but the job is a long way from being over, as the communications lead still has to sell in the Government’s plans to win over residents.

This means developing persuasive campaigns that speak to a whole range of stakeholders, ranging in temperament from happy to confused to disappointed to downright angry, those of no real opinion, employers and three million Europeans living in Britain.

Selecting the right channels is key. Some stakeholders are at the older end while some are younger, preferring mobile technology.

By targeting messages effectively, the power of logic and reason can strategically turn a ‘no’ to a ‘don’t know’ to a ‘yes’, whether that’s via Spotify advertising or good old-fashioned billboards.

Some people will insulate themselves from opposing viewpoints and will need to be reeled into the Brexit thought process on the line of effective true storytelling: tales of those who convert from Brexit opposition to support, the growth of British businesses, the heroic rescue from the jaws of political fallacy.

What seems like a mission impossible could turn out to be the communications masterplan of the century, yet it could all go so horribly wrong and end in tears.

Good dialogue in healthy Government-public relationships can also lead to more disagreement, not conflict resolution, if the public end up more determined to maintain their existing viewpoints, perhaps unconvinced by woolly facts, downright lies and more fear-based messaging.

The trick is to treat adults like adults. People are more capable of cognitive processing than public relations practitioners think, they just need the Brexit concepts and statistics communicating, explaining, breaking down, backing up. Slogans, fallacious appeals to tradition and reactive statements just don’t cut it.

More than anything, the head of comms will need some solid truths based on thorough research to convince people that Brexit can bring regeneration, hope and opportunities.

If the Department for Exiting the European Union can't deliver its promises, get ready for a high-profile PR exit.

Howard Dobson is the former corporate comms manager at NHS Blood and Transplant and is currently studying for a masters in PR

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