A no-deal Brexit—in which the U.K. would immediately leave the European Union—would have major ramifications. The British government has warned of potential impacts that range from shortages of food and medicine to rising prices to difficulties at border crossings.
While U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to discount much of the rhetoric as “Operation Fear,” the situation has required businesses to perform a balancing act to manage the instability.
Whether there’s a Brexit deal, a no-deal Brexit or the idea is abandoned is anyone’s guess.
“It’s been really difficult,” says Howard Krais, the communication director at chemicals company Johnson Matthey, and president of IABC’s U.K. and Ireland chapter. “For a long time, no one could be sure what, if anything, was going to happen.”
The December 2019 election gave Johnson what he deemed an “overwhelming mandate” to move forward with Brexit, seemingly offering more clarity. But as Krais noted, “With Brexit, it has been dangerous to be too sure what comes next.”
As of now, Brexit will be delayed until at least 31 January 2020, after European Union leaders agreed in October to extend the U.K.’s exit deadline.
Navigating the business communication issues behind this political roller coaster isn’t an easy task.
You have to be careful how you talk about Brexit, because there are many entrenched views that can quickly become divisive, Krais says.
Here are his suggestions on how to navigate these potentially fraught discussions.
Provide some degree of certainty
In uncertain times, it’s important to create and articulate a clear plan. Think through how any potential Brexit outcomes will impact not only current employees but your company’s pipeline of potential hires, as well as the movement of products and other supply-chain implications.
It’s important for communicators to consider the potential impacts with leaders within their organizations and then relay the workarounds based on different scenarios.
Next, prepare public conversations that detail those ideas based on “this is where we are today and what we understand right now.”
“You need to be able to show that plans are in place, and…you want to be able to give a degree of confidence to show that things are, to the best of our ability, under control,” Krais says.
Create forums for discussion and content sharing
To more effectively communicate Johnson Matthey’s Brexit plans, Krais says they’ve hosted Yam Jams, moderated live town hall-style events via the social networking tool Yammer. To spearhead the conversations, the company’s main point of contact who has been leading the company’s Brexit planning has been going on-site to various locations for the question-and-answer sessions.
Johnson Matthey also created a microsite to share its Brexit-related content.
“It details out what we are doing and what our plans are,” Krais says. “It’s important to have visibility and the availability of the right individuals who can respond to questions, but to also remind others we don’t have all the answers.”
Have personalized conversations
Communicators should also plan on having direct conversations with specific individuals, Krais says, such as European nationals who are working in the U.K., to understand their personal ambitions, plans and work placement deals to manage projects—no matter the Brexit outcome.
Be aware of the types of projects and contracts in the works, whether the individuals who are managing those projects have been permanently placed or are in temporary positions, and what deadlines are pending.
You need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, Krais says. But also articulate, ahead of time, what potential help the company will and won’t provide.
For example, if a European national is considering becoming a citizen of the U.K., Krais says his company spells out how the company might help, and what it isn’t willing to do, to ensure those individuals have clarity.
“How we communicate in this period of great uncertainty is very important,” Krais says. “Your employee base will react, in terms of how they think about your company with how you deal with these issues, and if they trust you and think you are doing the right thing.”
Be transparent about knowns and unknowns
When handled properly, the lessons learned from Brexit can be a template for managing unforeseeable changes in the future.
It’s important to show how your company has thought through different scenarios and how they will impact employees.
“Having transparency and honesty is very important,” Krais says. “There may be some situations where we don’t know, there may be some questions we can’t answer, but you’ve got to be very transparent in what you can and can’t say.”
If you can’t share something, Krais recommends promising that you’ll come back with additional information as soon as you’re able to.
Doing so, Krais says, will give confidence in others that as a business, you’re on top of the issues.
“How we communicate in this more confusing world is giving us great learning,” Krais says. “If Brexit is ever done, there will be another topic in the future that will challenge us in this way.”