Breaking up is hard to do

What are the lessons communicators should take from Brexit?

At the 2016 European Communication Summit, a special panel discussed lessons learned – or not, as the case may be – from the Brexit vote. The following are edited highlights from the wide-ranging, sometimes heated, discussion.

Interview by Karin Helmstaedt

Main photo: The panel left to right: Moderator Karin Helmstaedt, Jonathan Refoy, Tara Palmieri, Anthony Gooch and Utta Tuttlies

KARIN HELMSTAEDT Jonathan, you worked on the Leave campaign so perhaps you can tell us why it worked?

JONATHAN REFOY The Vote Leave campaign had a great advantage, which any corporate affairs person would struggle to overcome. For 43 years the British press has hardly written a positive story about European institutions. Now, you can argue that these stories were very poor in terms of the quality of their content and factual accuracy, but they were still in the press, influencing voters and decision makers up and down the country. It gave Vote Leave a fantastic platform to leverage in the campaign itself. Secondly, one of the things that really made a difference was getting out door to door and talking to voters. I’ve never worked on a campaign before where it was so easy to get voters to go out to vote. Also the growth in voter support for UKIP in the UK general election 2015 also showed that voters from the left and right were increasingly disenfranchised from the three main political parties. This was to be key in winning the Leave vote in the north of England.

Utta, working in the ‘Brussels bubble’, how aware were you of the extent of this disenfranchisement that people are feeling?

UTTA TUTTLIES We were not only aware but of course we were doing our part to campaign for Remain and to support the ‘Stronger In’ campaign for Labour. Of course if you have a referendum you need to accept it because that is what the voter wanted. But already in the next days the main messages were dismantled and the main politicians responsible resigned. All of them who initiated the referendum and who strongly supported it stepped down and disappeared from the scene. Our group regrets the vote, but that is what has been decided by the voter so we now support Junker and others in the call for Article 50 to be triggered. It comes back to the messages that were transported, whether the messages were right or wrong, and it is very clear that many of the messages were simply based on lies.

Tara, as a political observer were you surprised at the back peddalling that happened almost in the initial hours?

TARA PALMERI I was certainly surprised to see a lot of these leaders saying hours later “Oh, well of course if we want to be part of the largest single market we have to have free movement of labour.” Immigration was one of their key arguments and a lot of people thought that when they were voting to keep EU migrants out of the country. But they were being told a few hours later “If we want to have access to single markets then we have to agree to this rule”. I was shocked to see David Cameron step down. When I went to bed that night, Nigel Farage had put out his resignation and said they had lost. And then I woke up in the morning and it was Brexit. I think we were all shocked.

Anthony, what impact do you think the polls had on the final decision to leave?

ANTHONY GOOCH The question posed to the public was complex and somewhat unfair in the sense that it wasn’t really a choice between two clearly defined options. It was to remain in or leave the EU but formulated in such a way as not to clarify what leaving meant. What remaining meant was very clear in terms of the experience over many years and the numbers and so on. One of the reasons for the aftermath of shock including among some who voted to leave was a realisation of what it might mean in concrete terms. In the UK we haven’t had a referendum for so long, you don’t often have a chance to be asked your opinion on a very personal basis. Regarding the influence of the polls, one of the most concerning findings was the number of voters suffering from ‘Bremorse’ who felt certain that Remain was going to win based on polls, and felt safe they could express a vote of protest without the heavy consequences of Brexit.

How effective was the Leave campaign really if the orchestrators all abandoned ship, leaving everyone else to deal with the results?

JONATHAN I’ve never seen a political campaign where the messaging hasn’t been disputed on either side. It was very easy to pick apart the Remain messaging and it is equally easy to pick apart a lot of the Leave messaging. It was just getting access to the right channels to do this. How often have you read political manifestos or campaign material and thought “those figures are right, those figures are wrong?” Sadly, in political campaigns figures often are blended and twisted to suit a particular message..

"It was very easy to pick apart the Remain messaging and it is equally easy to pick apart a lot of the Leave messaging."

ANTHONY If a private sector company runs an advertising campaign and sells a product or a service on  a certain basis, that product then goes to the market and is discovered not to be what was promised, we all know what the consequences would be for the company concerned, its reputation, the CEO, board and shareholders. Why don’t we apply the same strict standards to the public political sphere? In our democracy we seem to be willing to give everybody a free pass, there is impunity. In the campaign we saw statements issued and meaning attached to information only to see them backtracked a few days or weeks later and the perpetrators heading off into the sunset having explained they needed to  “get my life back”. I think we should dwell on that big time.

Anthony, in the weeks before Brexit OECD published a report on the potential economic consequences. What was the fate of that report and what were the implications for expert-based communications?

ANTHONY Our report revealed there would be immediate short term economic consequences for every household in the UK: each would have one month’s income less on average by 2020 than they would have by remaining within the EU. When we presented this report in the UK, we were immediately described as an “EU funded organisation” by the Leave campaign and many sections of the media. The point of this tactic was to divert from the substance of what we were presenting, and immediately question the credibility of the source. But they were also picking and choosing. In its editorial, the Sun newspaper selectively quoted our report in support of the Leave position on immigration, but in the next paragraph dismissed all of our economic forecasting as “pure guess work”. This raises serious questions about the future for evidence-based policy. I see a lot of policy-based evidence, meaning we make up our minds on something and then we marshal the arguments to defend that position. I see that as a challenge for all of us in society, communicators and beyond.

JONATHAN One of the things that the Remain campaign suffered with was too many economic reports. There was almost a new report at some point two, three times a day from different organisations with new numbers, new messaging and predicted impacts of a vote to leave the EU. There was too much data and too many messages, none of which had any follow up from the Remain campaign and thus lost traction very quickly with the media and voters. If you just had 10 bullet points taken from Anthony’s report that’s all they needed to form a strong economic message for the Remain campaign.

UTTA Why do people believe in simple messages? Why do they not want to know more and really want to engage in politics? Of course the EU is complicated, but it is a peace project that is generating at least for many of us public services that are beneficial. So it has lots of advantages. Part of the problem is the growing divide between rich and poor and this is where we have to start to look at economic policies, at social policies and also make sure that people feel included in the whole European project. Because that is what they don’t feel.

"Why do people believe in simple messages? Why do they not want to know more and really want to engage in politics?"

TARA As a journalist I feel the European institutions are really bad at communicating. I don’t even know half the words. They’re basically English words with the ‘-tion’ at the end which sounds kind of French. I come from the US system, and policy is complicated in every country, everywhere, but people don’t feel in the US that they don’t have an understanding of it. Here they make it seem that policy is completely intangible to everyday people. It’s just not communicated in the way that it’s should be, simple points, information made easy. It shouldn’t take me 12 hours to read through a document to understand it. I feel for them because there are 27 different countries, 27 different cultures, 27 different ways of communicating, but the person who can get it out in the easiest way to understand, they’re going to win the messaging war.

Critics have pointed at social media as the source of many of the problems, insofar as it proved an open forum for abuse, the tone of which has severely ratcheted up in many parts of Europe over the past month. But also in the sense that it isn’t the great leveller many proclaim it to be. Are there communities that have literally been filtered out of the conversation?

UTTA Any politician or campaigner can directly reach the people via social media, so you do not have the filter of an editor or journalist, and the more effective you are, the more money you have, the more you are out there. It is something that has huge potential and no politician can ever win a campaign without social media. But it also has its dark sides. And when it comes to social media messaging it is also very important that it doesn’t become too heated. In the UK, Jo Cox was killed because it reached a dangerous level.

TARA The likeability of the people who are representing each side is also important. In the Leave campaign, everyone loved Boris. He’s fun, he’s like the uncle you want to have a beer with. When Farage is on social media he is way more authentic than anything you’re going to get out of Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, or even Cameron.

That’s a question of entertainment, not substance

TARA It’s entertaining but it’s connecting to everyday people. If these people can’t connect, if they’re just tweeting the same boring statement that I put at the bottom of my story because it’s literally going to make eyes glaze over, how are they supposed to connect with their constituents?

JONATHAN I certainly agree. Social media is a hugely powerful and useful consumer access tool, branding tool, political tool. However, it is misused. At the end of the Leave campaign I shut my Twitter feed down because some of the responses were unacceptable. There are certainly issues with political communications and political campaigning, how you use social media and how you are mindful of the impact wider impacts a campaign could have. But it is very hard to police it, to control it and if you’re sending out a press release as an organisation, where does your responsibility stop and start?

There’s also the aspect of so many people being filtered out in terms of access. Not everybody is on the web and using social media, so it’s not getting through to certain communities.

TARA When you’re using social media, if you want to get the attention of journalist, if you want to get the attention of everyday consumers, be as authentic as possible. Tweet in the voice you speak in. The best tweets are the most authentic tweets, those are the ones that get retweeted thousands and thousands of times. That applies to politics, it applies to selling products, it applies to everything. People want to feel that it’s authentic.

ANTHONY This is the first major political event of global magnitude that shows how human beings are becoming influenced subconsciously by their behaviour on social media. How many people who “liked” Leave at the ballot box on 23 June thought the next day when they woke up “Oh my god, I’m going to 'unlike' Leave, delete my tweet, recall that message. Can I do that one again?” Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel really encapsulated it beautifully when he sent a public message clearly intended for David Cameron and the UK at the post-referendum EU Council meeting: “We are not on Facebook now, this isn’t an 'it’s complicated' status. Either we’re together or we’re not together”.

UTTA What we have seen is that the messages that work best, especially on social media, are messages that are very simple, strong messages. "Turkey will join the EU and you will be invaded by Syrians via Turkey." That was simply a lie and it was all over social media. That is the challenge we are facing, and that’s why it‘s important we look beyond UK. We are living in a world where democracy and the way of democratic participation is fundamentally changing with the rise of social media. We have to think about what that means

Anthony Gooch

Before being appointed to the role of director of public affairs and communications at the OECD in 2008, Anthony Gooch was head of the European Commission’s media and public diplomacy operations in the UK. Between 2003 and 2006, he was based in Washington DC, heading the Commission’s media and public diplomacy operations in the US. From 2002 to 2003, he was the EU’s visiting fellow to the University of Southern California Los Angeles.

Karin Helmstaedt

Karin Helmstaedt is a Canadian-born journalist at Germany’s foreign broadcaster Deutsche Welle. She currently hosts the network’s daily culture and lifestyle magazine Euromaxx, and is a culture editor for the English news. She has also hosted numerous live event programs all over Europe, including the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Karin is the moderator of the European Communication Summit.

Tara Palmeri

Tara Palmeri is a reporter and Playbook Plus columnist for POLITICO based in Brussels,  where she covers European Union politics. She is also a contributor to CNBC where she provides analysis, reporting and commentary on programming about EU issues. Prior to joining PO LITICO, Palmeri reported on New York City politics for the New York Post.

Jonathan Refoy

Jonathan Refoy joined global engineering company CH2M in 2011 to lead its European corporate affairs function and serves on the company’s European board. He was UK head of property communications and policy at Wal-Mart. Prior to this, he was head of public affairs at BAA Plc. He also worked at Tesco Plc in its corporate affairs function.

Utta Tuttlies

Utta Tuttlies took up her current positon as head of press and communications/ spokesperson for the S&D Group in the European Parliament in 2010. With 194 members from 28 countries, the S&D Group is the second largest political group in the European Parliament. Previously, Utta was head of communications and public affairs for the Association of Commercial Television in Brussels. Before that, she worked as a political consultant in Brussels and as a media relations advisor in Germany.