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Did the EU make its own Brexit bed?

Out of Europe. How did that happen? The shockwaves of Brexit continue to dominate the news and political agenda and even featured prominently in Donald Trump’s election campaign. As we continue to post mortem the Remain and Leave campaigns, there is a point here for PR professionals to consider about poor reputation management. 

We wouldn’t be in this position, and possibly not had a Referendum if the EU had, over many years, won the hearts and minds of English and Welsh voters. If people had just a bit more understanding of what the EU does for them, and felt they belonged, things could have been very different. 

Glib and easy to say, yes, but true. Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us? sums it up. We’ve learnt to dislike a faceless EU because we’ve been constantly fed negatives, and the media have hardly gone overboard informing us about the many things the EU has done for us. 

Take Cornwall for example, did those Leave voters know that the high speed broadband they are enjoying was EU funded, or their local college was in receipt of grants? 

Even amongst many Remainers, especially younger people, the emotion is all about internationalism, a global outlook, not necessarily loving the EU, or knowing the facts. It was only when the sense of loss hit that people turned out to protest their love for the EU. 

For 43 years the EU’s reputation has been buffeted by emotional anti Europe outbursts from red top sensationalism to Daily Mail hype and more subtle and complex anti-arguments in the quality press. It continues now with the shameless attacks on the High Court judges. 

And how has the EU responded over those 43 years? Well that’s the problem. From a reputational management perspective very poorly. And I speak as a committed pro-European. 

The EU Commission has always had an aloof, haughty demeanour. From day one, the EU appeared to think it had an invincible place in the institutional architecture of member states, under no threat apart from occasional challenges from turbulent figures like Margaret Thatcher. 

That’s not to say that the EU does not try to publicise its efforts. It pumps out endless press releases, and EU funding carries conditional publicity caveats. But get this, British recipients of grants such as theatres and YMCA’s, have been fined £150m for not complying with these conditions like displaying the EU logo on signage and websites. But this in itself a reputational learning, why would so many grant recipients not comply? What’s the issue and how can we/could we have changed perceptions? 

So, the EU has had 43 years, to monitor and recognise that in the UK, and elsewhere, it has reputational issues, 43 years to research, devise strategies, and employ experts, in-house or agencies with the simple brief; ‘Make people know and love us’. I hesitate to use jargon but where was the ‘thinking outside the box’ or being ‘disruptive’ in the face of years of entrenched Daily Mail propaganda. They’ve had the time to target generations of children and adults, give them a sense of being Euro citizens, ensuring that everything the EU does for them in their area is powerfully communicated, of making people feel the love. Instead its PR output was generally turgid, formulaic, and uncreative and these are now the voters who said, ‘OK the remote, aloof EU is part of the uncaring establishment so let’s leave’. Things could have been different if the best brains in PR for two generations had been given the challenge...