What Brexit taught us about the Opportunity for PR


The narrow margin by which the Remain campaign lost the referendum came as a surprise to the majority, including many of those who voted to leave. It was a highly complicated question which was in turn both simplified and distorted. PR and communications can play a role as strategic lead; making sense of complexity, managing reputation and telling the organisational story and we are now at a time and in a place where it is vital that it does so. 

You’ll learn:
•    Following the EU referendum, we face incomparable levels of uncertainty
•    The PR profession must take a lead in guiding business through the challenges of effective   communications in indeterminate and unpredictable times
•    In order to deliver on this obligation, there is an onus on us all to ensure that the profession is properly equipped

Uncertain times

The narrow margins of the referendum vote have laid bare a divided society in which trust in politics, politicians, journalists and the corporate world is at low ebb. Fragmented relationships in society have created divisions which transcend traditional demographics.

That trust has been eroded because society finds it increasingly difficult to know where to turn for accurate information. There was a refrain that rang out constantly during the campaign and that continues to resonate: we are supposedly living in a ‘post-factual democracy’. 

It’s not difficult to see what’s meant by that. Promises to deliver £350 million a day to the NHS evaporated the moment the polling stations closed. It wasn’t just a vain promise, the figure was a fabrication in the first place. 

The day after the vote Donald Trump tweeted “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!” He seemed unaware of the fact that north of the border the Scots had voted 68% in favour of remaining. That said, using Donald Trump in any argument feels like ‘reductio ad absurdum’.

In a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust, public relations professionals could play a vital role in helping organisations and businesses navigate the tempestuous waters brought about by the Brexit vote. 

We still have a PR problem

There is a problem here however. Many business leaders and journalists would break into howls of laughter and derision at the notion that PR people deliver information that is both truthful and accurate. We haven’t yet shaken off the reputation that the PR industry has acquired for spin and obfuscation. 

Those of us practising PR have no doubt that we can bring clarity in complex and opaque times but we need to do more to persuade the wider community.

Public relations is about building trust and reputation and that begins with listening and understanding. Whether we work in house or for agencies we are effectively mediators with the responsibility for promoting mutual understanding between organisations and their public. It’s an old definition of PR but it still holds true. 

Often that means doing our part to promote transparency and accountability within organisations. The reality is that in a world where everyone can publish, secrets are more difficult to keep; putting a gloss on a story does more harm than good. It is increasingly the job of PR professionals to explain that reality to business leaders and organisational heads. 

We still have some way to go to shake off the image of Siobhan Sharpe, Patsy and Edina and Malcolm Tucker. We can however achieve that and the more we talk about standards of professionalism the greater the opportunity. 

Professionalism is key to unlocking the opportunity

The current climate demands a renewed focus on professional development. PR people need to evidence the fact that they have the skills and credentials to meet the challenges of communicating in uncertain times.

We can’t help in our duty to provide strategic counsel and support organisations in making sense of themselves and the world around them if we don’t build trust. In order to build that trust we must demonstrate that we are as committed to professionalism as any other profession. 

Having served as President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I believe that the industry is grasping that nettle and professional bodies have a vital role to play. More than ever practitioners are seeking to demonstrate their commitment to ongoing professional development. The renewed focus on Chartered Practitioner status is clear evidence of that. The CIPR’s goal is to have half of our 10,000 strong membership becoming Chartered Practitioners within a decade. I believe it is one that we can realistically achieve and it is important for the reputation of the industry that we do so. 

What have we learned?

The lesson from Brexit is that the establishment and the business world, the majority of whom were Remainers, did not get their message across. We have also learned since the vote of the vast uncertainty that awaits us. Much of this was barely discussed in the campaign:

•    How will we manage our borders, in particular in with Ireland?
•    What will our trading relationships look like?
•    How will we manage needs of the beneficiaries of EU subsidies?
•    How will we allocate the EU subsidy that we no longer pay?
•    How long will it all take?
•    Will our passports be black again (and will we have to surrender the red EU ones)? 

We know that in times of confusion and ambiguity communications plays a paramount role. The opportunity for public relations is therefore very significant. 

If we are to take that opportunity and deliver, we need to do our own PR and this includes raising the reputation of the industry. I honestly wouldn’t hang about, the time is now. 

Rob Brown is Managing Partner at Rule 5 and President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).He is author of the best-selling ‘Public Relations and the Social Web’ (Kogan Page) and has both edited and contributed to numerous books on PR. Rob is listed in the PR Week Powerbook 2008-2016 and the Global Powerbook 2016. 

Twitter: @robbrown
Online: www.rule-5.co.uk