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May 2, 2019

How Business Executives Should Speak About Brexit

Business leaders who have something to say about Brexit should consider these tips before catapulting into the crowd.

Thanks to Brexit, the rest of the world must despair of the United Kingdom. Brexit should be easy to explain—the UK is leaving a trading bloc after a popular vote—but that vote was nearly three years ago, we still don’t know when we’re leaving and the UK’s relationship with the European Union after the deed is done is an unknown destination.

 The British public is thoroughly bored of the whole process, and many switch off their televisions—and their brains—when the B-word is mentioned. But the outcome really matters. The UK has been in the EU for 45 years,  and leaving will define its place in the world and its future trading status for generations. So thought leaders need to stake out a place in the debate. But if it’s not easy for people in the UK to understand, how are readers in the U.S. supposed to make sense of Brexit?

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 This is the most polarized political debate the UK has had since…well, maybe since the Irish question was (kind of) resolved in the 1920s. Politicians and commentators agree they’ve never known debate so harsh, so hard-edged and so vitriolic as Brexit has become. A Member of Parliament was murdered in 2016 by a far-right agitator who shouted, “Britain First!” (a far-right political group) as he wielded the knife. These are crazy times. What does that mean for people who are trying to contribute constructively to the debate? I think it suggests that you should stay away from the broad-brush approach. It’s no good simply saying “Brexit is bad” or “No deal now!” Half of your audience will switch off and dismiss you without hearing what you have to say, while the other half will welcome you warmly into their echo chamber while in fact not listening to you any more intently than did those who disagreed with you. You’re just a tick in a box now—another “remain” (or leave) supporter.

Interventions in the debate have to be specific and balanced. Make them short, intelligible and sector-specific. If your industry will face, say, two problems if there’s a no-deal Brexit, then say so. Don’t say, “We’ll face these problems, and that’s why it’s all so very terrible.” Brexit is going to happen—eventually, probably, maybe—and so you need to think about how you make that world better in the specific context to which you can speak with authority. At the same time, acknowledge that the other side might have some valid points. Don’t just write them off because you voted a different way. If you can’t dial the despair out of your words, you’re better off staying out.

The real value that senior business executives, entrepreneurs and industry leaders can add is hard-headed clarity of purpose. You’re not Dave58439262 on Twitter, posting a gif of the Union Flag. The audience needs to understand that you bring expertise to a toxic debate, and that expertise makes you dispassionate but informed. Be in no doubt that you’re fighting an uphill battle. “Experts” are discredited now, because huge swaths of the public want to hear soft words with which they agree, and the phenomenon of “fake news” has increased public distrust in anything they hear or read by a factor of ten. Some people will always assume that you’re mistaken or lying, or both, and it is the quality and sharpness of your intervention which will go some way to overcoming those instincts.

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It’s also worth trying to remind people that contingency planning—that is, anticipating that Brexit could have one of several outcomes, and each would require a tailored response—is what business does. It always has. The stakes may be higher this time, and the partisans may be angrier on either side than ever before, but try to capture a moment of calm in the storm, and remember that this is what industry leaders do. They anticipate events, they plan scenarios and they work out, without emotion and relying on facts and experience, how they would react to them.

The most important thing to remember is that we’re all in this together. Everyone in the UK, as well as anyone who ever trades with the UK—yes, I mean you, America—or does any business there is going to be affected by Brexit. Don’t get carried away with ade haut en bas approach, as if this is just of theoretical interest to you. How will your business be affected? What are the implications for your employees? These are real things and they’re going to happen to real people. Speak to—and for—them.

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