OPINION: When brands should speak up on Brexit

Andrew Clark, recently appointed public affairs director at Burson-Marsteller and a former deputy business editor of The Times, identifies four key questions business leaders need to ask themselves before wading into this potentially “toxic” debate. He says there are clear pros and cons businesses should consider before stating their views on whether Britain should remain in the EU.

Ping! An email from the Financial Times dropped into the inbox of every FTSE 100 chief executive recently. It demanded their view on the thorny issue of whether Britain should remain in the European Union.

Most responded with roundabout forms of words equating to “no comment”. So toxic is the issue that some even refused to answer a follow-up question on whether their companies were making any contingency plans for a possible Brexit scenario – a seemingly sensible, and essential, piece of corporate housekeeping.

But, should business leaders should enter the fray? Is it worth entering the debate?

For many, the instinct is to stay mum: in such a visceral argument, the argument goes, it doesn’t pay to upset a sizeable chunk of your customer base. It could open up your own business, trading relationships, and employment practices, to unwelcome scrutiny.

Advocates for tact and discretion point to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, in which many of those who stuck their heads above the parapet were viciously attacked.

As a journalist during the Scottish referendum, I remember talking to Paula Bell, chief financial officer of Scottish transport company John Menzies, who said her company felt independence would be bad for business, and that the vote was an unwelcome uncertainty. When I reported her remarks, Scottish nationalists rushed out a snarky statement pointing out that she wasn’t Scottish, that her previous job had been on the distant south coast of England and suggesting that she was experiencing “culture shock” by moving so far north. So much for constructive debate.

There’s a difference, though. The Scottish referendum was, at its core, a question of nationality and identity. The European referendum is rather different – although it has the capacity to excite flag-waving nationalists, it is fundamentally about a trading relationship, with economic arguments front and centre. An exit from the EU would undeniably have a direct impact, be it positive or negative, on thousands of British businesses.

The strongest pillars of the “in” case – access to export markets, free movement of people and capital, stability and security – are built on economic foundations. So are the cornerstones of the “out” case – liberation from regulation, innovation, entrepreneurship and the Euro’s dismal failure.

In formulating a position – or non-position – on Europe, business leaders should ask themselves four questions:

1. Can I draw a direct, and tangible, link between the UK’s EU membership and the fortunes of my business, or my industry?
2. Can I present this as the view of my company, rather than my personal view?
3. Does my business have anything to hide in terms of its ethics and business practices?
4. Am I willing, and adequately prepared, to argue the point, and defend my position?

Your argument will be far stronger, and will attract more attention, if you can point to specific EU initiatives, be they positive or negative, that have touched your industry.

Vague declarations of support for one side or the other, without a specifically tailored rationale, are much more vulnerable to attack and add little originality to an already noisy public dialogue.

If you are going to enter the debate, then backing from colleagues is crucial. It can be difficult to get collective agreement around a boardroom table on a position. But it’s worth it. It really doesn’t make sense to intervene in the public debate by speaking in a “personal capacity”. The media won’t respect the distinction.

In all cases, think carefully about your business’s weak spots before you open your mouth. By wading into a political issue, you are inviting journalists and campaigners to look for ways to undermine your moral standing.

If a business is using a “Dutch sandwich” off-shore tax arrangement, if it recently retrenched from European territories, or if its employees are protesting over zero-hours contracts, it might be as well to keep out of the limelight.

And if you’ve made inconsistent statements in the past, you may find yourself having to explain your change of heart.

Finally, it’s crucial to be willing to engage in a discussion, to listen to others and to defend your stance.

Sticking to a single agreed line won’t last for long in a fast-moving, dynamic four-month campaign. You need to have thought through the issues and be prepared for debate. The purpose, after all, of breaking your silence is to seek to influence others, for the good of your business. That will require persuasive skills beyond a single signature, letter or statement.

This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared on the Burson-Marsteller web site.

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