If you give a friend £10, then never hear from them again until the next time they want £10, how likely are you to give them money again?
This is an over-simplistic metaphor perhaps, but one that we as PR professionals often use to highlight the benefit of ongoing communication to maintain relationships with stakeholders and create goodwill in the corporate and investment worlds.
As Brexit continues to dominate the headlines – and as we rejoice in evidence that our economy has apparently never been stronger, seemingly forgetting that we have not actually left Europe yet – it is hard not to feel that ignoring this basic communications concept could be at least partly responsible for the majority of British citizens having chosen to leave the EU.
The leave and remain campaigns were both criticised for spreading misinformation but, arguably, the real issue was how little prior knowledge UK citizens had about the role of the EU and what it had done for them. In the run-up to the referendum, much was made of the £350 million that Britain gave to the EU each week. Regardless of the significant rebate that this figure ignored, even pro-Europeans are likely to have found it difficult to identify exactly what our friends at the EU were doing with the mountain of £10 notes we had been giving them over a long period.
The case of Cornwall
The people of Cornwall, who were on course for £2.5 billion of funding between 2000 and 2020, have benefited more from EU funding than anywhere else in the UK to date. But despite a £132 million scheme to bring super-fast broadband to the far south-west, three innovation centres, improvements to rail infrastructure and the development of a new university campus, 56% voted in favour of leaving the EU.
While information about what the EU had done, and was doing, for Cornwall did come out in the lead-up to the referendum, it was a case of too little, too late. With EU money flooding in, a beautiful coastline and an endless supply of exceptional ice cream, it is hard to believe that the Cornish would think life could be better. But with a lack of information or celebration of what EU membership was delivering for them, the good people of Cornwall had little idea of the volume of benefits they were receiving.
When the good-news stories were communicated, as the referendum debate took hold, it was into an already hostile environment in which it was difficult to win support. If the EU had been more proactive and taken a longer-term approach to promoting and claiming credit for what it was doing in Cornwall – and anywhere else in the UK for that matter – people might have had more knowledge of the benefits, felt more engaged with Europe and more willing to defend it.
It may be too late for the EU to reverse perceptions amongst the British population now, but the Brexit mess highlights a valuable lesson for organisations more broadly: positive perceptions are not built overnight and come from long-term communications in good times and bad.