As the news sinks in that the British people have made the historic decision to leave the European Union, what challenges lie ahead for your business and what questions should you ask when adapting your communications strategy?
What challenges do you face?
Following the 23 June referendum and sudden state in which we find ourselves, where no one really knows what's going on or what's going to happen next, there are three common challenges which organisations of all shapes and sizes will be facing up to.
Firstly, loss of business confidence. When David Cameron made his resignation speech he said that Article 50 would not be triggered until October, which means that it is four months until negotiations to leave the EU actually begin. Then we have a two-year deadline to complete the deals.
This feeling of being in limbo is bad news for businesses, who like stability and certainty when deciding how to spend their budgets. This can have a ripple effect across the supply chain: a large car manufacturer holds off developing a new model and bringing it to market; the design team is not needed and staff are not employed to make it; component parts are not ordered; the extra factory space is not leased; the ad agency aren’t asked to create a campaign; the sales team have nothing to sell.
And of course, no one knows yet what trade tariffs will be put in place and when they will come into force. So businesses might be hesitant about printing up new brochures, packaging and swing tags just yet, in case prices have to change.
Many organisations will be concerned about a direct loss of funding. Which is why regions like Yorkshire and Cornwall have appealed to the government to assure them that the multi-million pound grants they receive from the EU will be continued post-Brexit. See the before and after stories above.
As for education, the University of Cambridge, for example, gets a quarter of its funding from the EU and many startups which have spun out from the University rely on EU funds for R&D. When will this money dry up? Not knowing makes it very difficult to plan ahead. Any major loss of revenue like this is naturally going to be a big blow to your organisation and you may already be looking into alternative sources of income.
And then there are worries within the company. Again, because of the confusion over what happens next, will you face obstacles in recruiting talent from outside the UK? Will existing staff be worried about losing their jobs? Or fretting that the whole operation might be moved overseas?
They might be feeling positive too. It’s a referendum won on the issue of immigration – so if you’re a business which employs a lot of staff from outside the UK, British nationals might feel encouraged by the thought of less competition for their job. In contrast, their Polish colleague might be wondering about their long-term prospects.
With this combination of challenges, a solid communications strategy has never been more important. What questions should you be asking to help you plan ahead during this unprecedented time of change?
1. How will your customers change?
If you’re a retailer in Northern Ireland you may find that, post-Brexit, trade tariffs mean your products become more expensive to customers south of the border and customs controls cause logistical problems. So you might start trying to appeal to people more local to you.
If you’re a café owner in the City and financial service companies start to move out of London, you may find you have less footfall. So you'll be looking to attract a different type of customer.
If you’re in tourism, you might be dealing with worries that flights will get more expensive and that changes in the value in sterling will put people off from going abroad. But on the flipside, this could mean more visitors to the UK and more Brits holidaying at home.
British Airways were quick to get a promoted tweet out, targeted at US customers, saying how their dollar will go further if they come to the UK (now that sterling has crashed). This didn't go down so well in some quarters on Twitter.
But now is the time to start making sure you’re attracting a wider customer base so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket.
You’ll need to outline who these new customer groups might be, where they are located and the most effective ways of reaching them. This may lead to a rethink about the way you communicate and even the products and services you are offering.
There could be an opportunity for growth that you hadn't previously thought of - think positive! We could start to trade more with customers in the US, India and China. If you're in the legal profession or offer language skills training, then you're in a strong position right now and so you need to get out there and make a noise about it.
2. How will you communicate internally?
The key thing here is to be visible. Strong leadership is vitally important. Sending out a company-wide email in the first few days which answers the sort of questions about the future that your staff will be asking, will be appreciated. See how restaurateur Jeremy King faced up to his responsibilities straight away and sent out two messages to reassure worried staff.
Can you make yourself available for a public Q&A about what will happen next? Do you have any sort of intranet, forum or private company Facebook group where your staff can ask questions openly? Honesty is good; if you don't have a definitive answer then it's fine to say so.
People will want to be reassured that the company is stable and things won’t suddenly change. A chat with HR will be useful so that you are keeping to the law about what you should and shouldn’t be promising to your employees.
They will also want an indication about how frequently you will be communicating with them. After sending out that initial message, you’ll need to keep it up so they are kept up to date during this rapidly changing situation.
Advice on how to talk to customers and clients will be helpful. There will be common questions that come up about the long-term delivery of your product and service, so make life easy for them by explaining the official line. This will also help keep your external messaging consistent, which is what your customers and shareholders will want to see.
3. Which channels will you use?
This is a good time to shake up your approach to communications and take a fresh look at the channels you’re using. Are they the most effective for the job in hand? Let’s take a look at some of the options:
Website. This is always going to be the first place that customers and employees look when they want the official word on what’s going on. As in all good crisis communications, setting up a special area for updates, linked to from the homepage, will be a good idea. This could be a simple list of FAQs. Don’t forget to keep it updated with the latest information and to make sure you cover the questions people are asking. Large corporations might want to set up a private area for investors and shareholders too.
See how the University of Cambridge has a statement from the Vice-Chancellor, linked to clearly from the homepage. The Citizen's Advice Bureau's information is set out clearly and simply, calmly answering the questions people are asking.
Press releases. It’s time to really promote your business, getting the word out that it’s not just business as usual, but you have some great things to shout about. This will help calm investors’ and shareholders’ nerves. They want to hear good news, that business is booming.
Networking. If you’ve let this slide, it’s time to get back in the game. As well as giving you the opportunity to raise awareness of your business and make useful contacts, it will be good to swap stories and get support from other professionals who will also be going through a time of uncertainty.
Social media. Again, this gives you the opportunity to get a positive narrative out there about your company and to attract new recruits. When was the last time you refreshed your cover photos and company bios? Are there any channels that you’ve left idle that can be resurrected? What sorts of messages are you putting out, and who’s in charge of writing them? It might be time to make changes to your subject matter and tone of voice.
Because we all give away so much personal information on social media, advertising can be very targeted and very effective too. Just this morning I’ve seen promoted tweets from the Cornish Tourist Board encouraging people to visit the area, and from a company in Paris encouraging businesses to settle there. The beauty of social media advertising is that it’s very flexible in terms of how much you spend, and the ads are very easy to tweak as you go.
Print advertising shouldn’t be forgotten here though. If you’re looking at attracting a different type of recruit, as well as advertising on social media you may want to advertise your vacancies in different publications to previously. Or you might want to have a presence in the financial press. Keep an eye on your competitors to see what they're up to.
Email marketing. A system like Mailchimp can be used to send tailored messages to customers, investors and your staff. Don’t wait for people to ask questions, be proactive and get your messages out there. Keep things simple, with nuggets of information and clear links to your website where you can expand upon your points in more depth.
Your next steps
I would be fascinated to hear from other business owners about how the decision to leave the EU is affecting your business and the way you communicate - so please share and comment below.
And if you would like support with your communications strategy, we're here to help:
- Content audit and strategy for the months to come
- Competitor and audience analysis
- Website copywriting
- Skills training in writing for the web, and social media techniques
- Email marketing and social media management
Do get in touch and we’ll work with you to put a clear and flexible plan in place.