In September 2019, British PM Boris Johnson visited the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg for a working lunch on the Brexit negotiations. Following that meeting, Johnson also paid a friendly visit to Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel, with whom a press briefing was scheduled later on the square outside the prime ministerial office. Given that a crowd of about 100 demonstrators had gathered just a few meters away and boisterously booed and jeered Johnson’s presence and Brexit policies, the heckled Prime Minister of the UK skipped the event altogether.
His no-show presented the Luxembourg Prime Minister with a perfect platform to play to the gallery and share the EU’s views and grievances. He went ahead with the press brief, standing next to an empty podium and in front of the British flag. The clips and pics shot of that episode quickly went viral, raised eyebrows and caused mockery, both of Johnson’s alleged cowardice in avoiding the stage and of Bettel’s supposed arrogance in taking it.
Loosely inspired by the maxim from political science literature about ‘dogs that don’t bark’, our caption ‘absence can be a message, too’ has different levels of interpretation.
APPARENT:  Johnson’s absence as he was skipping the press event with Bettel
At the most apparent level, the caption clearly refers to Johnson’s shunning of the hecklers. We are stating the obvious. However, what message his absence in the end really conveyed remains subject to discussion. Cowardice? Political calculus? Or maybe the little he would have had to say anyways was not worth the hassle and bad press?
UNDERLYING: the UK’s absence as its membership in the EU was at stake
Apart from Johnson’s personal and physical absence, his presence in Luxembourg reminded us of the looming departure of the UK from the EU. And his absence from the press briefing while the British flag remained in the background of the pictures came to represent a perfect metaphor of that British solo act. Were we looking at some kind of transitional ‘empty chair’?
HYPOTHETICAL: Bettel’s own absence since he could have canceled the event
Our caption can at the same time suggest that M. Bettel did have the option to call off the press event altogether when Johnson made it clear he was backing down. The press coverage for Johnson would probably have been the same in essence, if not in scope and reach, but without the perverse effect of accused inappropriateness directed at PM Bettel. And his country?
In terms of public relations, each of the three possible interpretations leaves us with a lesson:

  1. Evaluate every opportunity to communicate
  2. Build and sustain long-lasting relationships
  3. Beware possible perverse (or diverse) effects
  4. Base your communication on a clear positioning

In brief, the episode was a forceful reminder of the dogs that don’t bark. The intent and reasons why they don’t bark will always differ.
In any case, for 2020, we wish you plenty of opportunities to make your presence felt. Have a splendid new year.

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