An internal comms conversation about Brexit

ICology ep #26, Rachel Miller with All Things IC

The UK's vote to leave the EU will have a tremendous impact on the messages companies will be sending to employees. There's a lot of unknown right now and employees will be looking to their leaders for answers. Internal communicators will have a huge role to play here. 

In this episode, Rachel Miller from All Things IC shares her insights as a Brit and a leader in the world of internal communications. She talks about the role of communicators during this crisis and the tone they need to set. This is a great learning lesson for US communicators as the Presidential election nears closer. 

Learn more about Rachel's expertise at All Things IC and on Twitter at @allthingsIC

ICology is available on iTunes as well as many other platforms and apps. Or you can listen to the media player above. 

Episode Transcript

Chuck: Hello, I'm your host, Chuck Gose, thank you again for listening and, again, as I said at the beginning, this is not a regularly scheduled episode of ICology, but just with the timely nature of Brexit, I wanted to get some dialogue around it, and I'm sure there are communicators in the UK and around the world scrambling up there right now, or are they? These are some of the questions I want to answer. And regardless of it, it's a vote that has tremendous global impact but it's also going to change the way companies do business and what they're communicating, and even perhaps how they're communicating. I also think it could shed some light, some insight, on how US communicators might want to begin planning and thinking about the presidential elections coming up and the role that politics might have in how communicators work with their employees and communicate to their employees. 
 
So, today I want to welcome to the show Rachel Miller from All Things IC. She is both a friend, but most importantly, she is an amazing communicator and a leader in the world of Internal Communications, so, Rachel, welcome to ICology!
 
Rachel: You're so kind. Thank you very much, Chuck, thank you for asking me to join you today. 
 
Chuck: Well, I appreciate you jumbling your schedule there a little bit to get it in, but to get right into it, I want to get a sense, I mean, it's making news around the world, but give listeners sort of your sense of the mood right now in the UK. 
 
Rachel: I think bewilderment is probably the best way to describe it. Everyone's a bit confused, there are lots of, "How on earth could this happen?" and, "Have we really lost?" or, "Have we really won?" Everyone's a bit baffled, frankly. Lots of TV and news today, there's a tweet from @SoVeryBritish which is just brilliant, it's summing up the mood in Britain, and there was a tweet this morning saying, "We'll need a bigger kettle." There really is a sense of "What on earth has just happened," everyone's holding their breath and just waiting to find out what happens next. 
 
Chuck: I'm not going to ask which side you supported or how you voted, but do you get a sense that people are surprised at the results? 
 
Rachel: I do, I think there's a real sense of surprise. I mean, the facts are that the Leave vote got 53.4% and the Remain was 46.6%, and not really a lot in it. And the turnout is 73%. These are massive numbers, these are chunky numbers. And the Leave won the majority of votes in England and Wales, so there is real shock, I think, at just how many people got involved in this conversation and how close the result was. 
 
Chuck: Well, I would say I think that's probably a good sign that you had that high of a turnout, I mean, that's something I know in US elections that people view that as a more representative draw, but it is interesting that, even with that high turnout, how that vote ended up shaking down. Before the vote happened, so prior to this, what sort of communication was being sent out by companies to employees? Was it, you know, encouraging people to vote, was it educating them on the decision, did you see anything that was being sent out there?
 
Rachel: I did. It was very much business as usual, as you would expect with any other election. It was all about making sure that if you are eligible, that you are registered. So, it wasn't so much directing people in terms of how you should vote, but companies were saying that if you're eligible, make sure you're registered, don't forget to vote. For example, O2 yesterday, Telefonica, shared screen grabs from their internet, via Twitter, which was saying, "Make sure you vote today." They're not telling people how to vote, but just make sure you join that conversation. 
 
Chuck: And did you hear of any companies, though, that were encouraging employees to vote, maybe based on what was best for the company. I know here, in the US, a lot of the news are around the financial implications and the immigration implications. Did you hear any stories of companies sort of saying, "This is the impact of a Remain vote will have for us, this is what a Leave vote will have for us."?
 
Rachel: Well, there were 1,280 business leaders signed a letter in The Independent newspaper to Remain, so that's from 51, let's see 100 companies. So, by default, if you are an employee of one of those organizations, you very clearly know how your leaders are voting and, therefore, the sense of the way that your organization wanted you to vote. But, you know, one can't be explicit, to say, "You must vote in this way." I think one thing that happened from the campaigns from both sides was that there was a lot of information. There was a lot of noise, and there were a lot of rumors frankly and untruths, from both sides, and it was very hard to see through the noise. So I think what organizations have been doing is presenting the facts and leaving it to the British public to make up their minds, which they now have. 
 
Chuck: And do you think companies have been planning, from a comm standpoint, based on the vote going either way, like, if it's a Remain, these are our messages, if it's a Leave, these are our messages?
 
Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. So, I had a meeting with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, we were both at an event, and we were having a chat afterwards. She works for a building society and they were preparing scripts for their core center employees because the reality is, now, you know that people are going to be calling banks and building societies, saying, "What does this mean for my mortgage? Do I need to take my money out of the bank?" for example. So, people are worried and they're unclear what happens next. So, organizations have been planning for this and doing, as you say, two sets, the "What happens if we remain", "What happens if we leave." 
 
But the honest truth is, we don't know, we can't possibly know. We know no more today than we did yesterday, we are in a situation where it's very much business as usual, wait and see what happens. There's also, you see, David Cameron resigned today, and Barack Obama was saying that our relationship with the US is going to be enduring, we're going to be indispensable, you know, remain indispensable apart this. So it was not a clear message here in terms of what this actually means for us, the citizens, and what it means for organizations. So trying to have an internal comms approach or strategy that says, as you would with anything, any change, "This is what it means for us, this is what's going to happen, this is what the timeline is," we just don't know. We're keeping calm and carrying on, trying to do business as usual but equipping our employees to say, "As soon as we know, we'll let you know." We can't do any more than that right now, frankly. 
 
Chuck: I would imagine it would be really difficult for those customer-facing employees who, you said, maybe they sort of have this script, they sort of have an answer to give to the people, but they themselves are still trying to find their own personal answer to what's going to happen.
 
Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. And the mood, really, if you take social media, it's a snapshot, or the window of the mood. It's a mixed fact today. People are very angry, and people are very disappointed, and people are very happy. You know, you've got both emotions going on because there's an equal split pretty much. So that, I mean, translates into, you know, your own personal life, but obviously your professional life, you're right. If you’re dealing with people here, and we're dealing with humans and humans' emotions, so if you're having a script that you have to stick to but actually it's not what you would actually say, it's very tricky. And this is just, we need to have the approach we always have from a changed comms perspective, it's communicate what we know, offer reassurance, offer guidance, and most importantly, know that there are lines of conversation, channels of conversation that are open. Be ready for dialogue and, soon as everyone figures what's going on, just to keep communicating, just to keep, you know, shutting down the rumors, and clarifying the facts. We really can do no more than that, particularly on day one, which today is. 
 
Chuck: Have you seen examples of how companies are responding, what are they putting out? What sort of communication do you think they're sending out to employees?
 
Rachel: There was a really lovely example this morning from Simply Communicate, which is, you know, an organization that exists to help communicators in their set-up. I mean they haven't called it a self-help group but it's pretty much a self-help group by LinkedIn for internal communicators to join to figure this out, because there can't be one single authority on this because it's such a new world for us, we don't know what's going to happen. 
 
So, internal communicators as a network, as a community, are getting together and saying, "Let's figure this out, but let's stick to what we know in terms of good principles of good communication." So Liam FitzPatrick was quoted in an article on Simply Communicate today and was giving advice around having a measured approach, restoring calm, and reiterating its business as usual. 
 
The fact that nothing will change immediately, no matter what we think it's going to happen or predict will happen. Actually, as I said earlier, there's nothing today, other than the fact that our Prime Minister's gone, he's not actually going until October, so there's not that much difference. Just, I think, the confusion level has gone up, and the fear has gone up, that's the difference. 
 
So what that means for us as internal communicators is, as we always do, we need to dig deep, roll our sleeves up, put the cats alone, and just figure this out, alongside the employees that we're guiding, and when we know, we'll let them know. 
 
Chuck: What I think would be interesting, if there's any examples that come across of leaders sort of acknowledging and you used the word beyond that, bewilderment, of leaders of acknowledging that this is sort of a world of unknown, and that they themselves are freaking out. It would be interesting to see if there is sort of a vulnerability there, and then how employees would respond to that. 
 
Rachel: There's an article already that's come out saying Morgan Stanley is going to move 2,000 London jobs to Dublin and Frankfurt and then all of a sudden, within an hour there was a statement that actually that's not true. You know, these stories are starting, these views are starting, these rumors are starting, whereas everyone feels like the last one in London please turn the light out and shut the door. It feels like, everyone feels like the exit has started already, but this is not the time for rumors and untruths, this is the time for clarifications and for leaders to be open and honest and say, "We're going to figure this out with you." That's what we need to focus on.
 
Chuck: And what sort of tone do you think it's important out for communicators, especially if they're working with leaders to express and get across?
 
Rachel: I think it's a tricky one because, regardless of your own personal views, we now have a decision. So, if your organization chose to remain and actually now we're leaving, you kind of have to set that apart, there's no point in saying, "Well this isn't what we wanted." We're in this situation, we just need to crack on it and deal with it. So for leaders it's about drawing out as much as they can, "This is what it means for us." With all the unknowns in the back of your mind. I think it's around, "This is what we do know, this is what we can influence, and this is what's not going to change." 
 
Whenever there's any kind of change program or change comes, there are always things that remain the same, so, from a leader's perspective, all the things that they promised to do, on being truthful, on being authentic, and act with integrity, and having two-way communications, those things can be made, and those are incredibly important. You cannot over communicate during change. So, the leaders - be accessible, be vulnerable and say, "Yeah, we haven't quite figured this all out yet, bear with us." I think it's a good thing, but it takes the guts to do that, frankly. 
 
Chuck: There certainly it would take strong leadership, and that's what I'm curious if there will be instances of say, for example, someone like a Richard Branson, somebody who is not just a leader in a company, but a leader in business.
 
Rachel: He's been so vocal, he's been, you know, before the referendum, he's so vocal, and he very clearly…I think there was no doubt in Virgin employees' minds that he wanted us to Remain, he was so explicit about it. So I think you're right, I think there will be leaders who are being very vocal and I think some leaders will have very strong views and they will communicate racial views.
 
James Dyson, for example, the entrepreneur, is very, very vocal in saying that we should leave, and I imagine if you work for Dyson today, I haven't seen any very internal qualms, but I imagine the tone for Dyson would be very different to the tone within Virgin today. 
 
Chuck: And so with people at work today, and then they've got a weekend, people that don't work on weekends, do you think some people coming back to work on Mondays, do you think there'll be a divide between employees? Do you think this could create a negative morale issue of people that obviously it may not impact anything involving their work life, but when people bring in their personal lives to work, of the people that, you know, are angry about maybe the vote, or people that are very celebratory about the vote, do you think that this could create some friction in companies?
 
Rachel: I absolutely do. Today we've been dealing with people and people's personal views, and that's what we've been asked to share, our personal view, which is why we went to the polls, I absolutely think so. I think that just looking at Facebook, for example, it's a window on the world, friends of mine saying, if you voted either way, saying, "Unfriend me if you voted to leave," or "Unfriend me if you voted to remain." This is personal. This affects everybody personally. There are people who they haven't spoken to their parents because they can't quite bring themselves to talk to them yet because they know they voted the opposite way to them. So, you know, this is personal. I've certainly felt…I've spent the day, I've been at home with the children today and it's been a bit of a daze, a bit of a bubble, trying not to read everything but it's like a car crash, you can't stop reading, and feeling, and having emotions about what you're hearing. You turn off social media, you turn the radio on and you hear the Prime Minister resigned. So you turn that off and you turn the tele on, and it's interrupted with a newsflash, the constant flow of news today it's just going to keep going over the weekend. So, by Monday, who knows where we'll be. We couldn't have predicted the mood today two days ago so, come Monday, there's talk of people saying, "There's going to be violence, there's going to be this and the other." Who knows. All we can do is keep calm, carry on and wait and see what happens. We can't do any more than that. 
 
Chuck: Well, then, that's why I think this is an opportunity for US communicators to sort of see some of these examples, both the very good examples and bad examples of company communications as we come upon our own presidential elections, which is in its own multi-year long car crash that people cannot get past, with Trump and Hillary. And I imagine it's going to be the same type of thing when that election happens, there are going to be opposing sides as we are already seeing on Facebook and on other social channels. So I think it could be a good guidance for communicators, maybe not just in the US, but other elections, as we start to see the role that the personal lives have in your professional life, as people can use social media to express their personal views in a much more broader sense than they ever could before. 
 
Rachel: I think it's an option also to reinforce and highlight what we all have in organizations, which are employees support lines, and people have access to really good support networks internally, will be that a work counsellor, will be that a third party provider who do counselling. You know, we have access to these sort of things all of the time, I think in times like now, it's good to remember that, it's good to make sure, as internal communicators, that we know those lines between internal and external are blurred. So, if you have a third party provider, for example, who are offering counselling services to your employees, have you spoken with them? Do they know what script or what message you were using internally? We need to think broader as internal communicators, to make sure that we are supporting our employees through this change, and all of the touch points of our organization are aligned or at least offering the same level of support, and guidance, and information to our employees. 
 
Chuck: You know, that is a great recommendation reminder that I hadn't thought of, Rachel. It's that aspect, it's that emotional aspect of all of this, and making sure that employers are aware of the resources and benefits available to them, because it is, as you said, such a highly emotionally charged topic, that people are going to be dealing with this in many different ways. I hadn't thought about this, you said the example of people not talking to their parents as a result of these news. It's definitely, I think it's like we said, we, looking out from abroad, looking at it from across the pond, it's news, but it's not as highly emotionally charged as what you would be dealing with there. And so, what I'm curious about, obviously here in the US, everything is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, and then people trying to understand what that really means. But of course there would have to be some sort of sexy term applied to it, so how do you feel about Brexit being the sort of word that's used to cover up this giant large mass of topic?
 
Rachel: I personally don't like the term at all. It's sad, really, that we need a name for it. I think what we need to hold true to is that, there is a majority vote but it's not a view that I hold. I think it's tricky, because I blogged just today, being open with you, I blogged just today about how I wanted us to remain, so I'm personally gutted today, but I put my professional hat on. But then you have to set aside your own personal views and just crack on and offer advice, and guidance, and accept, really. I think it's the acceptance piece which is going to be the hardest for the people who voted to remain, because it is very emotional, it is, you know, a very provocative campaign, and I think even the term Brexit certainly sets my teeth on edge and is now fact. So you just need to accept it. Who knows what's going to happen, Chuck, who knows what sexy term they'll come up with next.
 
Chuck: That's what I'm curious, will there be a Frexit, and a Spexit, and a Gerexit, it's all these other EU then, now, in the news here it's, "What's the next domino?" 
 
Rachel: It's with the handle, Chuck, it's all that I can say because it will go. 
 
Chuck: Because it's obviously an opportunity for Americans to learn more about the European economy, because we sort of think we rule all, and it's obviously, that's not the case. It will be interesting here to see the impact that the decision has and then now what are the next dominoes, because people are saying, will Germany leave, will Spain leave, because without the UK involved, did they lose some strength and power to it? But to close out, let's see, what's one big piece or a couple small pieces of advice that you would have for an internal communicator today, and the next week, and the next month, as they begin sorting out these details, and as they begin putting together these communications, and dealing with some potential backlash or financial fallout, or business news, what's some advice that you want to share with them?
 
Rachel: I would say, you're in crisis mode right now, you're in crisis comms mode, so you know how to do this. You just plan, gather your facts, reassure your employees, restore calm, if you can, publish timelines. That's what people want, whenever there's a big change, what they need to know is what's happening, and when, and what can I trust.
 
Our role as professional communicators is to make sense of the rumors, to enable them to happen, to provide clarity. That's what we do every time there's a crisis, is we gather the facts, and we reassure, and we ensure that employees know that this isn't a broadcast, this is a two-way dialogue, so everything that is going to be happening it will happening with them, not to them, and there is support in places, as we've already mentioned. 
 
You're in crisis mode. Dig deep, roll your sleeves up, and just got to work frankly, Chuck. 
 
Chuck: Well, Rachel, I want to thank you again for being a guest on ICology, sharing your thoughts, your expertise, your advice. And if you're an internal comms and you're not reading Rachel's site, get out from under your rock, go to allthingsic.com as well as follow her on Twitter @AllthingsIC the letter is "i", the letter is "c", because it is such a great resource for internal communicators, and not just with current news, but so many great tools and resources over the years, Rachel, you've assembled that I've leaned on, I've used, and I'm sure thousands of other communicators have appreciated, as well. So please also follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology to pick up show announcements, as well as other internal comms news. And if you're not already a subscriber of ICology, listen to it on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcast, and if you like what you hear, please leave a review. Those matter dearly to me. 
 
If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening!