The Brexit Vote and Our Vital Role as Counselors

Anytime we are surprised by a sudden, unexpected shift in public opinion it’s an opportunity for us to think about our role as counselors.

At our best, communications counselors are sensors of social change, anticipating shifts in societal expectations, able to see around corners faster than most. We are, or should strive to be, experts in public opinion and where it’s headed. After all, our field’s founding text is “Crystallizing Public Opinion.” It is because of these well-developed antennae that we are able to advise management ahead of these shifts and serve as the policy Sherpa, the business strategist and early-alert capability of the corporation. It’s a tall order, a high bar, I realize.

Much of the commentary following last Thursday’s vote by the UK to leave the European Union has been about the economic fall-out, the political fall-out and the acrimonious debate about how, when and if the UK follows through on the referendum.

Far more interesting to me, and I hope you, is the why. Why the Leave campaign won. On the surface, many say it was because of a misleading campaign by Leave and an ineffective campaign by Remain. But the campaigns weren’t conducted on a blank canvas. Barely below the surface was a mix of brewing and stewing public anger that we have been studying for years in the political, business and societal context. Yes, it was a backlash against organized politics, but it was also a backlash against a lot more than that. It was further evidence of a shift in power from institutions to individuals and communities.

And this is not a phenomenon special to the UK and EU–it’s just about everywhere in the world today.

This is why at Ketchum we spoke out on income inequality two years ago in a series of articles and posts. It’s why we invested in proprietary research about the continuing intolerance and bias in the corporate suite–because it puts us on the front lines and in close touch with the growing nationalism, protectionism, prejudice and xenophobia that fueled the Brexit vote.

These fractious issues are not just essential variables for politicians to understand in the public sector. It is essential that those of us in the private sector study and appreciate these escalating dynamics. If you market products and services, protect reputations or manage issues, your context is changing and your path forward will be buffeted by these issues.

It suggests that we all invest more time to study these vectors (click to tweet):

  1. The rise of extreme nationalism: This is a vector that does not divide along traditional conservative and liberal lines. Millions of people within both conservative and liberal camps are coming down on the side of increased protectionism and defense of national identity. It is producing strange bedfellows and unprecedented alliances.
  2. The revolution brewing around inequality: The word revolution is used intentionally. Extreme inequality between haves and have nots will be addressed through a popular uprising or government intervention or both. Brexit is proof that this is not off in the distance, it’s now.
  3. The intense resistance to multi-culturalism: What a shame, just when we thought we were making some real progress, we see way too much evidence of intolerance, fear and sweeping prejudice against “anyone not like me.”
  4. The paradox of increased transparency and speed: These issues are more visible and raw in 2016 because everyone sees everything instantly, no matter where it happens. This fuels and accelerates the impact of the three issues above. Paradoxically, however, despite this transparency and perhaps because the news cycle is down to a nano-second, fact checking can’t keep up with bogus claims and outright lies.

I hope you will join me in investing time to more fully understand these issues. I look forward to discussing them with you soon.

About Rob Flaherty

Rob Flaherty is Partner, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Ketchum, one of the world’s top communications firms and PRWeek’s 2012 Agency of the Year. Flaherty leads Ketchum’s 20 member Global Leadership Council to guide the strategy, client service and performance of the agency. Since joining Ketchum, Rob has been involved in all aspects of the firm’s business, including having successfully led its largest office, one of its global practices and several of its largest client engagements. In addition to his position at Ketchum, Rob is very active in the industry, serving on the executive committee of the board of the Institute for Public Relations, on the Agency Management Committee of the Council of Public Relations Firms, and on the advisory board of directors for Room to Read, Ketchum’s global pro bono partner. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.