There is a deep irony about Brexit. What was meant to settle, once and for all, debate and division about our relationship with the rest of Europe, has done the opposite. What looked like a binary choice – in or out – has become an unwieldy and complex set of options and scenarios along an ever-changing timeline. We hoped for certainty and closure. Instead, we got uncertainty and confusion.
As communicators, we are primed to quash anything that resembles such things. We know a lack of clarity is deeply unhelpful, especially inside our organisations. This is when rumour runs rife and speculation takes flight. So, we advise our leaders to be open, honest and forthright about what they know and – this is the hard part – what they don’t yet know.
We remind leaders that our employees are astute. They are insiders. They can spot spin and obfuscation a mile away. But in the case of Brexit, how do we communicate when almost everything is still unknown?
Snakes and electric shocks
First, some neuroscience. A study published in Nature Communications proves us communicators right. Humans are hardwired to hate uncertainty. Volunteers in this 2016 study were asked to play a computer game in which they overturned rocks that might harbour snakes. If they found a snake, they were given a mild electric shock on the hand.
Researchers monitored the gamers for physiological signs of stress, such as pupil dilation and perspiration. They found stress levels peaked when participants were uncertain what they were about to find. Knowing a snake would not appear and even knowing one definitely would – and that an electric shock was coming – was less stressful than simply not knowing.
“It turns out it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t,” said Archy de Berker, lead author of the study.
We humans want to know the worst and deal with the consequences. We hate limbo. This study proves the psychological impact of delivering bad news is better than the threat of delivering it.
Knowing the unknowns
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, made a comment during a news briefing that came to define his career. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
In her recent blog on Brexit, Rachel Miller, reminds internal communicators to start by listing known knowns and known unknowns. She writes: “If you’ve been tasked with overseeing Brexit comms, spotting the Knowns has been an impossible task. The list of Unknowns is long and keeps growing. Things that have felt certain have crossed over from Knowns to Unknowns at an alarming pace.”
As Brexit continues to unfold, keep an up-to-date list of what is certain in terms of the impact on your business, and what remains unclear. Be candid with employees about what is known and what is not.
Ask before you tell
Do not attempt to answer what you assume to be your employees’ questions about Brexit. Instead, ask for questions. I have always been surprised by how readily we make assumptions about what concerns our employees when it is relatively easy, and far more expedient, to simply ask them.
Compile these questions into themes. Different divisions, hierarchical levels and geographic locations may have very different issues and concerns.
Listen to the language people use when talking about Brexit. Mirror their terminology. And while you have your ear to the ground, you might want to benchmark sentiment around Brexit. This will give you a point of reference with which to measure the impact of your communication later.
Find a friendly expert
There will be people within your organisation and industry sector who are seen as authorities on parliamentary affairs, international trade and economics. Buy them coffee. Then drill them for information. Find out how they stay conversant with Brexit as it unfolds. Read what they read; follow who they follow. Your aim is not to become an expert on Brexit, but to understand the arguments and opinions of those who are.
Burning buildings and barometers
When a building is on fire, the only communication that matters is ‘leave swiftly by the nearest available exit’. Once safe, communicators might address wider concerns. How did the fire start? Could it happen again? How do we mitigate future risks? Contextual information and background analysis are important, but timing is everything.
Be clear on the instructions you need to give employees about Brexit – those clear calls to action. Consider also the wider context and background that will give deeper meaning and build understanding. Differentiate what is ‘need to know’ from long form content, such as a Q&A with your friendly expert.
Your job is to be a trusted guide. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer confirms this. Employees are now looking to their employers to be a trusted source of information. “The time for fence-sitting by large corporates is long gone – businesses must take a clear stance on issues and lead from the front.” Your organisation need not go as far as Pimlico Plumbers in declaring their stance on Brexit. Instead, explain the likely impact of potential scenarios, point to possible outcomes and answer all questions honestly.
From cascade to conversation
A study by Forbes confirms what we know to be true instinctively: face-to-face communication builds trust, forges bonds and deepens understanding. Give your employees the opportunity to ask questions, debate the issues and experience the sincerity of your communication.
Consider what information you need to create for employees to interrogate in their own time and in their own way. The government’s EU Exit website for example, uses a simple survey to help individuals and business select the most relevant documents and publications on leaving the EU. But always complement any ‘content hub’ with in-person communication, ideally face-to-face.
To the lighthouse
Gauge the impact of your Brexit communication by measuring against your sentiment benchmark. This way you can prove the impact of your work and refine your approach. Of course, you cannot create certainty where there is none. However, you can build trust. You can – and should – be reliable and steadfast source of information.
Like a lighthouse in a storm, you cannot stop the wind from raging, but you guide weary travellers through craggy rocks and choppy waters.