DivorcEU is like any breakup: What can industry learn from Brexit? 

by Lief Anya Schneider

June 2016

Everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of psychology knows that bad communication is the precursor to a relationship breakdown. The UK vote, by a small margin, to leave the EU was largely down to a massive, chronic, failure in communication. 

We all know the typical reasons for a breakup.  Most of us have said them ourselves:

“We just stopped talking.”

“The love died.”

“We wanted different things.”

“It wasn’t working anymore.”

Or, worst of all, “I got bored.”

Everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of psychology knows that bad communication is the precursor to a relationship breakdown. The UK vote, by a small margin, to leave the EU was largely down to a massive, chronic, failure in communication: Between the EU and the people of its own member states, between the UK and the EU, successive UK governments and their own people and even businesses heavily reliant on EU trade with their staff.

Encouraged by politicians with an eye to the main chance, many started to have private doubts. “What does the EU do for me?” “It costs how much?” “It has how much power?” “It’s led by who? I’ve never heard of them.”

The EU failed to communicate. The British Government failed to tell us what it was for. And we filed for divorce.

All of this echoes a malaise in the banking industry, pre-Lehman 2008 crisis, and even up to the present day.  Before 2008 in particular, the top bankers’ big message seemed to be “there, there, dears, let us get with it – you don’t need to understand – it’s all clever stuff, you see.” 

And then they messed up.  And were universally hated.  

Enter the Fintech challengers – communicating better, and more, talking openly about their ideas, explaining what they’re about, their plans, what they offer that is different.  They made their mark very quickly and began to gain the buy-in with investors. 

Like the banks, the EU had an air of closed-door “you wouldn’t understand” about it.  This includes our own MEPs, who kept, in hindsight, shockingly low profiles.  Most people didn’t even know who their MEP was. Organisations throughout time that have failed to communicate well have thus laid the foundations for their own demise. 

After the vote, we asked for an open relationship, and they said no. Now we are looking at being, as a nation, that bloke who divorced his wife, regretted it, and spent the next twenty years drunk dialing asking for “one more chance!”

What are the lessons for business?

1.      There’s nothing wrong with a good row

A row in a romance can be a good thing. Better than those silent meals where nothing is said, for fear of opening up the gates of hell. 

Remember, if you are old enough, that bloody great rumble between Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand? It kept the nation transfixed – watching, breathless, every twist and turn.  It was better than Gone with the Wind.

At some point, it emerged what we’d suspected all along - he loved her. He described her as having “the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe." 

That row at least engaged voters in France, Germany and the UK alike.  Perhaps Cameron and his predecessors should have had more of a public stand up row with Merkel, applying the sort of excellent sardonic wit he flaunted in the House of Commons, instead of staying so damn calm and reasonable.

 Industry lesson: Be a challenger, don’t be afraid of disagreements, but keep it friendly

2.     Praise

Where was the mutual praise?  Where were the statues in London, thanking the people of the United Kingdom for their ongoing membership of the EU, for being a good customer and for welcoming so many people to their land?  How many visible public monuments did we send to other EU countries?  Go through London, and you’ll see many examples of public monuments of gratitude from various nations thanking the British for their war efforts.  But that wasn’t replicated in this case.

Where were the advertising campaigns in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere, touting the number of years that we’d all avoided a European war (a historical record), and crediting the union?  Where were the politicians bigging up the EU on television?  They critiqued it, and occasionally threw it a begrudging line of praise, but how many times did they explain the benefits?

Where was the publicity for the huge benefits of programmes such as Erasmus, which was such a gift to UK students?  Where was the campaign for nations to praise not themselves, but each other?

Why didn’t we celebrate the union more?

Industry lesson: Stakeholders need praise and thanks.  Often.

3.     Communicate, make your case, and be accountable

The EU and its MEPs and member governments sometimes acted like the drunken, lipstick-marked or aftershave-stinking spouse who rolls in and says obliquely “I had to be somewhere”.

How much were we kept up to date with the work of EU wide environmental projects?  How often was good, sensible EU regulation followed with press interviews of those that had drafted it, explaining reasons and necessities?  How much did we know of the work of Europol?  How much did we know of the process of European-wide Human Rights legislation?  How often were we told how much the health of the UK had increased, due to a more varied diet – and the EU contribution to this?  Were we ever told how many lives had been saved by EU-instigated uniform food labelling?

Where was the proactive and reactive, persuasive communications machine, that explained it wasn’t bendy bananas that we banned – it was those that were diseased.

You can’t expect people to read between the lines. Information isn’t shared osmotically. It is incumbent on businesses to communicate.

Industry lesson: Communicate.  Actively

4.      Don’t be boring

Goodness, it seemed humourless sometimes. The dry draft regulation. The grim faces of Eurocrats when Naughty Boy Britain was around.

A lighter touch, and a strong, bold communications team, could have addressed this problem easily. With interesting press briefings and advisories.

More often than not, we vote for national leaders on the basis of character. But the European Parliament, Commission and Council?  We never knew their leaders. They were faceless robots to us. And, as such, dispensable as an entire group.

Most individual humans know that being boring is a bad thing, and try not to be.

So why then, do so many big organisations think it’s OK to be boring? Being boring kills more businesses, governments and causes than anything else.

Go onto the EU pressroom’s website: http://europa.eu/newsroom/home_en.  It’s a bit, ahem, dull. 

Why does this matter?  Because journalists pick and choose from the information sent to them.  They are, ultimately, in the entertainment industry.  They would rather cover good, interesting stories about firms, organisations and even the EU.  But if they get sent mundane and boring information, they look for the absurd and start to mock.  And boy, did they mock the EU.  From straight bananas to the banning of fireman’s poles and many other half-truths, they mocked it.  A savvy public relations operator will tell you that’s because they got sent a turgid press release, spoke to a turgid press officer and then decided to extrapolate something more fun. 

Lesson for industry: Boredom kills.  If you’re boring your stakeholders, be they customers, shareholders, staff or the wider public, you’re in trouble.

5.     Keep the love alive

 Those wonderful old couples who’ve been together for an improbable number of years and are still happy, always say they did this.

And we definitely didn’t with the EU. 

In industry terms, this translates to the conveying of the new, the fresh, the enthusiasm. 

Industry lesson: Show enthusiasm.  Often.

This blog is dedicated to the UK’s membership of the EU.  We will miss you.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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