My grandmother always said, ‘no talking about politics at the dinner table’. Did yours say that too?
Many businesses have applied a similar philosophy, preferring to get on with the making of widgets, and leaving politics to the politicians.
But times have changed, and if business ever was separable from politics, it certainly is no longer.
For me, the already hazy distinction was jettisoned for good when Brexit came along. At the time I was part of a comparatively small internal communications team at Deloitte in London. I had been asked to lead the internal communications response to Brexit, so for several weeks I met regularly with the Chief Economist and the firm’s lead partner for risk, along with colleagues from PR, Digital and our EU Markets division. No one really expected that Britain would walk away from Europe, not even the CEO.
Brexit was a time-consuming project on the side of our already hectic work schedules. In our white-collar London bubble, it was tempting to ignore the rumblings of discontent and only prepare for a ‘stay’ vote.
And then it happened.
Setting my alarm for 4am, the news was there on my phone screen. The British people had voted to leave the EU.
Everything changed, and we didn’t have any information. Would our many European employees need to leave the country? When? What would be the impact on our clients with pan-European operations? Were global markets about to heavily punish British-based businesses?
Thankfully, we hadn’t given into the temptation to only prepare communications that reflected our world view. We had prepared extensively for a ‘leave’ vote, as well as for ‘stay’. By 8.00am we had a letter from the CEO out to all staff. By 3pm we had the Chief Economist giving a webinar to 10,000 staff and clients. And within a week, an internal Brexit Advisory Group was established, with dedicated staff who were able to inform our stakeholders about the latest developments, and what they might mean for business.
Brexit for me marked the beginning of the current era, where populism is having a significant impact on the political landscape, and on business. It’s not the first time in history this has happened, but it’s the first time in living memory for many of us; with the effects amplified by the power of social media.
Now, the Trump administration is having a significant impact on the global economy. From changes to sanctions, to steel tariffs, to renegotiating NAFTA: businesses are operating in an unprecedented period of uncertainty. They are facing issues such as whether upstream suppliers will be increasing costs, whether carbon offsets purchased still have tradable value, or whether global contracts will be honoured when prices have increased by 30 percent overnight.
Communicators can no longer sit on the sidelines and refuse to talk about politics at the dinner table. They must be the most informed people in the organization, prepared to talk intelligently with leaders about how macro-economic changes will impact their business, its clients and their people.
They must be able to design communications that inform employees about how the policy they heard about in this morning’s news, will affect their role and maybe even their livelihood. Without creating panic. Without destabilizing the culture. Without causing political division.
We don’t need to take sides (although there can be a benefit to doing so - a post for another time). But we do need to be more prepared than ever to respond to complex, changing circumstances outside of our control, supporting employees to adapt and thrive, no matter what the future holds.