The EU Referendum: Has it really only been two months? As a communications case study it's a classic of its kind.
by Ben Capper
It feels like an absolute lifetime ago that I was checking polling data hourly before going to bed on 23rd June with a nervous confidence that Remain would just about pull through in the EU Referendum.
Well. That didn't quite happen obviously. And the entire political landscape has changed since.
I remember attending a "what does Brexit mean for comms" session at CommsCamp in July, literally about 3 weeks after the vote. After about an hour of really interesting and impassioned discussion, I really don't think anyone came to any real conclusions beyond a generally bewildered sense of "W T Actual F just happened?!!!"
It seemed to turn everything we thought we knew about comms and campaigning on its head and we were left in a massive fog about what this means for our profession. Does this mean that comforting lies will always beat the inconvenient truth? Does it mean we are entering into a new depressing world of ever more negative campaigning?
Well as we look at it now with a renewed degree of lucidity, I actually don't believe in retrospect that we should have been all that surprised by the result. I think that, far from being a weird anomaly that turns how we think about comms upside down, it actually confirms a number of basic truths about our profession and how we do things...
1. Emotional impact
Think feel do. Think feel do.
Remain had a lot of the think and the do. But hardly any of the feel (well not until it was far too late anyway). Leave on the other hand, had all 3 in spades. For example: "we spend money on being in Europe that could be spent here (think), I am angry about this (feel) so I'm going to take back control and vote leave (do)."
Dodgy stats aside, this was a strategy that was brutal in its simplicity and its effectiveness.
Remain focused on fact checks and rational thinking without plotting out how this should make a voter feel about the issue. It became a fact based transactional argument that completely missed the emotional aspect and allowed the opposing side to present themselves as the side that really cared and understood people's lives. This was fatal.
The leading protagonist in Remain (former PM D-Cam - remember him?) expected everyone to believe his new found Damascene conversion to the pro-EU cause after he'd spent the previous 6 years slagging it off at any every given opportunity was anything other than short term opportunism.
And, surprise surprise, we didn't buy it.
The point is, what you say in any campaign needs to be backed up by long term organisational behaviour. If it isn't, it'll fail. And that's not something that's easy for comms folk to fix on their own. However it is absolutely up to us to challenge the powers that be if we don't feel something they're demanding of us is not in line with our wider organisational narrative.
3. Clear messaging
Whatever your views, Leave were the absolute masters of this. Their utterly unsubtle web address was voteleavetakecontrol.org and they hammered the "take back control" message relentlessly. If nothing else, their steely eyed dedication to ruthless message discipline was maddeningly impressive.
Remain, on the other hand, were all over the place.
You had 100% Europhiles, the pragmatic Eurosceptics and the "7outof10ers" all tripping over themselves to be heard above each other. You had people on the same side of the debate arguing for the same thing but because of completely different reasons. "EU membership allows us total unfettered free trade" vs "EU membership is our last defence against the perils of globalist neoliberalism" all on the same platform (literally at times). It was, by any estimation, a confused mess.
Maybe all of these arguments had a degree of validity about them. But really, they should've just picked one and run with it!
When faced with a defining vote when your opponent is being so ruthless with a simple message, bringing a pseudo-intellectual debating society to the fray was a huge strategic blunder.
It was, to quote the former Prince of Darkness, “like taking a spoon to a knife fight.”
Again, a cautionary tale for all of us. Understand your message, test it, and be disciplined with it.
4. Strong leadership and strong personalities
Love him or (quite probably) loathe him, the Leave side scored a massive coup by enticing Boris Johnson (sorry but I refuse to call him by his first name alone) to lead the campaign.
Personable, out of the ordinary, good at putting a message across in an unusual way suitable for the unusual times we were in, he was a master of message discipline and a recognisable charismatic face. He was, I'd say unarguably, the face of Leave. And you could tell he revelled in it.
And so to Remain. A PM that seemed to encapsulate everything the vote was fighting against: complacent, London-focused and disconnected. A Leader of the Opposition who was, to be kind, lukewarm about committing a great deal of energy to a campaign he was only 7/10 about.
Neither these nor any of the many faces rolled out to give contradictory messages about why we should vote remain seemed to be able to give a straight and passionate answer.
No one seemed to want to be in charge. They wanted to be all things to all people. They were complacent and it showed.
This to me is a massive failure in leadership and it hugely hampered messaging and the ability to tell a clear story.
5. Creative bravery
One side was brave about making an impact whatever the circumstances and the fallout. The other one was way too cautious.
Guess which one won?
6. Knowing your audience
It’s disturbing in this day and age that, for some of the best comms folk in the business, such a thing needs to be stated. For all the many years of focus-grouping and polling, Remain just came across like it was talking to itself, and not engaging with those key constituents about their lives.
There’s a school of thought that suggests that the vote was lost (or won if you prefer) in the post-industrial towns of the North, Midlands and Wales. Communities that had had the crappy end of globalisation and never quite recovered from both recession and de-industrialisation.
It was clear that these were the communities that UKIP were doing well in, and therefore that Euroscepticism was rampant.
But when did you see David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn campaigning on the streets of Stockton-on-Tees, or St.Helens? If you did, well done, because I must have missed that one. And given how sophisticated polling modelling is these days, it really surprised me that something this obvious wasn’t part of the strategy.
There was a sense of preaching to the converted about Remain, not a great willingness to get out into the heartlands and really get to grips with people’s lives and persuade them to back the cause. And, sure enough, these communities are where Leave made huge inroads. Whatever you feel about their methods or their highly subjective use of statistics and “facts”, this again, was a simple but very effective strategy.
In public sector comms, there is a lot of ‘consultation’. This often involves engaging with public groups, ‘patient panels’, or ‘neighbourhood groups’ or similar. They consist of very dedicated members of the community, and they’re massive assets to us. But, if we only rely on involving them in our planning, because it’s the easy thing to do, very much like the Remain campaign, there’s a huge risk that we’ll miss the really important members of our community: i.e. the ones that don’t easily engage and whose lives our decisions will affect the most.
This is a timely reminder that we all have to go beyond the easy wins of preaching to the converted when planning campaigns and consultations, and sometimes make the case for really getting your hands dirty and walking in the shoes of the people whose lives you impact.
7. Banishing complacency
Remain thought they had this in the bag. The PM only called it in the first place because he thought he’d smash it easily.
Leave on the other hand couldn’t believe their luck. They knew the polls didn’t favour them, but for them this was the culmination of over 20 years campaigning and “banging on about Europe”.
It was plainly obvious who this vote meant more to, and unsurprisingly the energy levels in Leave were very obviously higher and with a far greater sense of urgency than Remain from the get-go.
So the lesson here? Complacency is your enemy. It must be banished from your life as a comms professional.
So the next time you’re planning a yearly campaign or initiative and someone in your office says “it’s easy. We’ll just to what we did last year, but change some of the pictures”, it’s time for alarm bells to be going off. Complacency drives sloppiness, and causes mistakes to happen. It makes you look like you’re taking people for granted and patronising them
If there’s anything the Brexit vote should teach us, it’s that the great British public (i.e. all of our customers as public servants) are not content to be treated like compliant drones anymore. This is something that should serve as a massive wake-up call to us all, and drive us to innovate, take risks, be creative and constantly test things with our communities.
8. Strategy beats tactics every time
You could argue that the entire referendum was just a tactic by Cameron to put some of his more troublesome back-benchers back in their box.
And this, I'm afraid, translated into the Remain campaign. There was a series of short term, underwhelming tactics without any clear sense of overriding narrative. It showed and it was punished accordingly.
Leave played the long game over a period of about 20 years. Their time had come. All the nonsense newspaper briefings about straight bananas, all the ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ opinion pieces about immigration all came to fruition in a spectacular way on 23rd June 2016.
And you could tell this from the campaign. They had a strategy and clear messaging and used them to devastating effect.
9. Mind the relevance gap
I could always sense the relevance of the EU on my life.
However, I'm a middle class, university educated, Guardian reading, white collar worker. It was never going to be the likes of me that decided this thing.
And there has been lots of head scratching in circles populated by this / my demographic. Why, for example, did Cornwall and Wales vote out when they've benefitted from many millions in EU funding? Simple. It was an institution that people didn't feel had relevance to many people and was so remote as to be possibly seen to be able to solve the many economic and social pressures they face. In this context, it's not surprising they gave it a good kicking.
It's time for people on the Remain side to have a bit of humility about this point. They just didn't tell the story effectively enough or make it relevant to the key voters in the referendum.
And this is possibly the main cautionary point to take from this for comms people. Do we really know our communities? Do we know what their expectations of us are? Are we designing our services and comms around these expectations?
Or are we just shouting in ever louder and more expensive ways about things they don't care about, but your leadership team insist they should? (All the money made by creative agencies producing glossy NHS annual reports would suggest the latter unfortunately).
Quite simply: irrelevance = death. It's our job to guard against this at all costs.
The thing that strikes me about this list is this. These are all Comms 101 subjects. They’re really basic and all things that we need to remember and keep in our minds whatever we're communicating about. The Remain campaign failed spectacularly on all of the points and as a result lost a vote they assumed would be in the bag.
Call it a cautionary tale if you will. I like to think of it as a timely reminder for all comms folk to remember the basics.
Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut...
Ben Capper is Director of Marketing at Liverpool Students’ Union
image via James Cridland