4 communications lessons from the Brexit referendum

Tata's UK boss says businesses can learn from the ill-fated Remain campaign.

by David Landsman
Last Updated: 11 Oct 2016

As businesses evaluate the consequences of the Brexit referendum, honing their linguistic skills won’t be among CEOs’ top priorities. But they, or their communications advisers, should pause for thought. Businesses need ‘the public’, whether as customers, employees or citizens. Understanding your customer is so central to success that there’s an entire function dedicated to it. 

But if companies succeed by knowing their customers, it’s clear that a substantial part of British businesses did not engage effectively with voters. Many supported remaining in the EU, often vocally. But the result suggests that the voters didn’t like the message or didn’t want to listen to it. 

In part, this wasn’t just about the arguments on the day, but a consequence of a loss of trust over many years. I’m not suggesting that PR or a cynical use of language will recover trust lost through bad behaviour. That is a task for substance rather than form, and will take time. But, at the same time, how we communicate with our stakeholders is itself a core component of doing business .

Linguistic lesson no 1: Work out how to explain in accessible language what it is you do and why we should value you for doing it

Business has to put in the effort to explain, in layman’s terms, what it contributes to the economy and society. There’s plenty to say, but it seems to be very hard for those who live and breathe business to explain it to those who don’t. Having spent most of my career in the public sector, I’m convinced the knowledge gap is real and substantial.

I’m not suggesting we ought to go puffing up the latest CSR initiative. Instead, there’s a much harder task of explaining the broader purpose of the value chain: what the business produces for its customers, employees and citizens, how it does it, and how it competes for the resources to invest. Most people do not think in terms of ROI, payback periods, or the cost of capital – but a prerequisite of trust is understanding, and that calls for education in the basics of business.

Lesson 2: Use language that treats people with respect on the principle that ‘the customer (or citizen) is always right’ (and, of course, actually believe it) 

So far, so straightforward. But we can’t just convey cold facts – for example that if a business is to invest in infrastructure, it will need to access capital at a given cost, which will be factored in to the price of the finished product. With social media breaking down the communications silos, we need to be able to engage with people as citizens just as well as we aim to communicate with customers and employees.

Nobody would try to persuade consumers to switch from a competitor’s product (say from Pepsi to Coke) by telling them that they were stupid to be buying it in the first place. But that’s precisely what happened during the referendum campaign. Somewhere in the marketing function, business knows this instinctively: just think of the polite ‘Thank you for flying with us, we know you have a choice’ at the end of a Virgin Atlantic flight.

Again, in today’s more open, less deferential world, this can’t be just softening our language in the hopes of disguising a less attractive reality underneath. How we listen and how we communicate reveals how we see ourselves our business and our stakeholders, and in turn heavily if unconsciously influences how we behave.

Lesson 3: don’t let the noise of internal stakeholders drown out essential voices from outside

We all know leaders need to listen. But the lesson of the referendum is that it also matters who we’re listening to. We’re all susceptible to the ‘Beltway phenomenon’: it’s easier to pay most attention to those who are closest to us. The more complex and demanding our internal stakeholders are, the harder it is to find the bandwidth to understand those outside who really matter. Hence, the need for conscious customer- (or citizen-) centricity, whether we’re talking about a business, a government or a political campaign. Perhaps every CEO should put the phrase ‘It’s not about you, it’s about them’ above his or her desk (and, if they dare, everybody else might put ‘It’s not about the boss, it’s about the customer’ above theirs...)

Lesson 4: What you say to people and about them gives away a lot about you. If you need to change, choosing the right language can help

Even after having decided to listen more widely, we need to reflect on what we really think of our customers, employees and citizens when we talk to them or talk about them. Let’s start with a simple example. What message are we sending when we say ‘what the public wants is x’? That ‘we’ know better and ‘you’, the public, are a lumpen mass?

Back to the referendum. There was plenty of talk in abstract concepts: ‘prosperity’, ‘globalisation’ and ‘openness’. Abstract analysis was often dressed up as ‘facts’, as though the very use of the word should deliver the killer blow, although often what was being described seemed far distant from the listener’s experience. Claiming that anyone who failed to accept the ‘facts’ was ignorant or uneducated only made matters worse by violating the ‘respect your customer’ rule. Gill Ereaut’s excellent research highlights how understanding the language businesses use to describe processes and stakeholders can be the catalyst for driving real improvements in engagement (see for example in Market Leader 2013, Q1).

To put these lessons into practice, we need to be aware of two paradoxes. First, as we’ve already seen, business already has most of the skills that seem to be lacking – in the shape of effective marketing. It’s just a matter of adapting them to the unfamiliar world of engaging with people as citizens.

The second paradox follows on. Every one of us who is a ‘producer’ (whatever the product) is also a consumer. We’re all members of the public too, even though we sometimes like to sound as though we are on a different level. The linguistic lessons are valuable tools. But the real message is not to leave our ‘ordinary’ selves at the office door, but to operate with both aspects of our own personalities, so that we can engage with the outside world instead of becoming absorbed in our own ecosystem (to use a pretty inaccessible piece of jargon). Whatever the outcome of Brexit, we’ll still need to engage, so there’s no better time to start applying the lessons.

David Landsman is executive director of Tata Limited and a former British diplomat. He is a chartered director and has a PhD in linguistics.

Image source: Abi Begum/Flickr


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