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The United Kingdom’s June vote to leave the European Union came as a surprise to many, not least those who supported withdrawal. As a direct result, U.K. politics has already undergone a massive shift. We have a new prime minister and cabinet in place and turmoil in the opposition Labour Party.
But getting too caught up in the political aftermath means missing the communications and PR lessons from the campaign itself – by both Remain and Leave.
Here are seven takeaways from the campaign which all of us involved in communications need to think about.
1. Stand by your stats.
There was widespread criticism about some of the financial figures used in the campaign, by both sides. But it was the figure used by the Leave campaign about the amount paid by the UK into the EU that caused most controversy. Despite a number of respected bodies disputing the number used, the Leave campaign remained completely faithful to it throughout and did not give ground.
2. It’s not just about information.
there were constant cries for ‘facts’ during the campaign but really the best moments for the Leave campaign were when they showed their passion and determination. They chimed better with the issues being raised across the country and played on the fears surrounding them, particularly where it came to immigration. So the appeals were emotional as well as factual.
3. You can’t turn around a super-tanker quickly.
for the then Prime Minister David Cameron, his main problem was that he had spent his time in office criticising the European Union and then suddenly became a convert to campaign for Remain. Similarly on immigration, his message was less than consistent. There had been no positive view of the EU or immigration presented for many years.
4. Leave displayed many-faces.
not in a Game of Thrones style but there was a not a single version of Leave and this both broadened its appeal and made it more difficult to pin down. It could be all things, to all people. Whilst this was a strength in the campaign it has the potential to be a major weakness where it comes to delivery as no-one really knows what Leave looks like.
5. The Westminster bubble.
America has long been used to complaints about Washington insiders but the UK equivalent, the Westminster bubble, came to prominence in this campaign. The bubble was used as a shorthand for politicians not understanding anything that goes on outside of Parliament and being detached from the lives of ordinary people. This also came through in complaints about Remain representing ‘the elite’ and ‘the establishment’.
Added to this was the constant talking down of the opinion of experts, much of which found evidence to stay in the EU, by Leave. The views of big business too were criticised by Leave as being part of ‘the establishment’ and ‘the elite’. You can start to see the pattern.
6. A variety of channels.
the Leave campaign worked through various channels well. Whilst they were active on social media they also appreciated that other channels were needed to get to their potential voters, many of who came from an older demographic. A ‘battle bus’ was sent out and there were plenty of rallies that took place. But the fact that the majority of the national newspapers were in support of Leave cannot be ignored.
7. Don’t be afraid to be controversial.
no-one looking at US politics at the moment should be surprised by this but controversy isn’t an end in itself. Instead it is used to highlight an issue and show action and difference from other candidates or the other side of the campaign. That ties in the disruption, anti ‘political correctness’ of the elite – see point 5!
Having a charismatic and/or familiar face helps as well. A strong case can be made for Boris Johnson, now the UK’s Foreign Secretary, invigorating the Leave campaign and giving it wider exposure than it would otherwise have enjoyed.
Critically, what the Brexit vote showed up with great clarity was a lack of trust in politicians and business. Unless we can start to counter that then we will all be in trouble.
Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs at Bircham Dyson Bell, a London-based law firm. His new book, Public Affairs: A Global Perspective, is out now.