Regardless of the result, today’s referendum will deliver a communications crisis for one set of political leaders. Are they ready?

By June 23, 2016Crisis Management

Crisis communications

Crisis Communications is often summed up as being the process of tackling “any negative situation that has the potential to damage a client/company/individual/group”.

Read that through slowly and I’m thinking specifically of recent examples like the 11,000 people who worked for years with BHS and who now face an uncertain future and even less security around their pension provision. More widely, but never more relevantly than now, I’m also thinking of the different sort of crisis set to emerge once the referendum result is certain – whatever the outcome turns out to be.

First though, it’s worth noting that it’s not the crisis itself that causes ongoing problems in its aftermath, it is the way leaders deal with what’s in front of them.

Much has been written and tweeted about the maverick Sir Philip Green and his handling of the BHS crisis and his appearance before MPs at Westminster. It’s fair to say that the consensus suggests he didn’t cover himself in glory around the whole issue. Similarly, critics would allege that Mike Ashley, founder of Sports Direct and owner of Newcastle United, seems to have forgotten that his lifestyle is only possible in no small way because of the productivity of his 20,000-plus workforce.

As leaders, their business acumen might be what’s required to build successful global brands, but there is a perception at least that this has at times been done at the expense of the rank and file workers who helped them do that.

Going back to 2007, when a fatal train crash in Cumbria killed 22 people, those in communications couldn’t fault Virgin boss Richard Branson for his strong, publicly accountable leadership style. He brought a much needed human face to the story and quickly set about fielding the barrage of questions from the gathered media – with many of the answers unclear at that stage.

Fast forward to 2014 and again he was front and centre – and accessible to the media – when Virgin Galactic crashed during a test flight. After travelling half way round the world, he communicated a fine line between empathy with those who lost their lives, while also remaining 100% committed to the continuation of the testing programme. Contrary to people turning their backs on the mission, ticket sales surged as the trust and integrity of the vision remained intact.

A crisis can never be explained as a good situation to be in. But good leaders tend to cope and sometimes thrive because they’ve probably already done the preparatory work to mobilise a team behind them. The key word here, whatever the scenario, is ‘preparation’. In today’s time-poor daily schedules, taking time out to consider a handling strategy for “the what if?” can always be dropped further down the list of priorities until it no longer surfaces or sits in a long lost to-do pile.

Crisis management is a skill in itself and like leadership it is underpinned by having a great team behind you with clear roles and responsibilities of who does what, when. A handling plan comes into its own if you’ve had a chance to test that plan. That way you’re half way to knowing where your weak areas are and crucially, what action to take to strengthen your response.

We’re about to see whether some of the key players in the referendum campaign are prepared enough for the crisis heading their way.  The Remain campaign, led by the Prime Minister, has campaigned for months on the message that Brexit would result in a very rapid crisis for the UK economy. If he’s right and we do vote to leave, is he prepared to take the contingency action needed to steady the ship and, importantly, to communicate his intentions clearly to the country and the markets alike? If he resigns quickly (as some expect under such circumstances) will his successors do and say the right things to provide certainty?

Similarly, if Remain prevails, it will be incumbent upon the leaders of the Leave campaign to tell us clearly how they plan to respond.  After all, many are serving government ministers, with positions of responsibility.  Will a loss for them in the referendum lead to a complete and final split on the Tory party that leads to further elections and uncertainty?  It’s up to them how they respond to defeat.

Whichever way today’s vote goes, it will be strong, effective, responsible leadership, backed by solid contingency planning, that is needed to begin to bridge the political rifts that have emerged and grown exponentially larger since the general election. Get that wrong and Friday morning’s victors will find that they may have won the referendum battle but undermined their ability to deliver a positive outcome for the country as a whole.

As Branson most certainly knows, you spend a lifetime building and maintaining a strong reputation. If you don’t invest time and effort preparing for when things go wrong, then act calmly and with integrity once the storm breaks, a crisis can see that image lost in the blink of an eye.

Elaine McKean is Managing Director of Indigo


This month voters in the UK will go to the polls to decide whether we, as a country, prefer to stand alone outside the European or continue to try to lead the international agenda from within it.

In the run-up to the referendum we will be posting a series of blogs, client stories and interviews from across Indigo’s networks, taking a sideways look at whether we can balance the advantages of strong networks against the freedom to stand out from the crowd.

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