Communicating Brexit

Ahead of tomorrow's historic vote, some communication lessons taken from a deeply divisive campaign.

Just under a week ago, on 16 June, British MP Jo Cox was shot dead by a man shouting "Britain first". Tomorrow, the UK goes to the polls to vote on whether to stay or leave in the EU. Both the Stronger In and Vote Leave camps suspended their campaigns immediately following the killing of Jo Cox, if only for a few days. The death of Jo Cox was the tragic apotheosis of an unprecedentedly intense campaign that crossed the boundaries of freedom of expression.

What had been a campaign based on political communication quickly degenerated into doom and gloom forecasts, escalating in lies, drama, hollow rhetoric and – ultimately – an assassination.

The Leave campaign engaged the public by using the power of narrative. Feelings of national pride were triggered by presenting an historical narrative in which Britain is a mighty and influential country. In the style of Donald Trump, the Leave campaign wants to make Britain great again. It argues that, by becoming part of the EU, Britain has lost sight of its status as an extraordinary nation. According to this narrative, a leave vote will set the British free, allowing Britain to become great again.

Vote Leave has been running a campaign of misinformation to scare voters into quitting EU Including such misleading messages as “The UK sends 350 million euro every week to Brussels”, “London always get bossed around by Brussels” and “Turkey will join the EU in 2020”

Brexit supporters warned that if Turkey was allowed to join, free movement rules within the EU could see many Turks seek work in the UK and could lead to a five million increase in the population by 2030. Despite being shown that their facts are incorrect, “Brexiters” persisted in advocating disinformation on many issues from migration to EU payments.

The Remain camp, on the other hand, evoked the element of danger in case of leaving. “Leaving Europe would threaten our economic and our national security,” said Prime Minister David Cameron. A group of the UK’s most eminent academics indicated that leaving would encourage politicians to pull apart decades of environmental policy established through the EU.

Being in the EU has allowed us to implement legal frameworks that have improved our quality of life, including the air we breathe and the seas we fish in, and has protected wildlife that crosses national boundaries, they said.

Here are four lessons to be learned from the campaigns in favour and against EU membership:

  1. We can't take a yes or no vote for granted – including the polls
    In the 2005 French referendum for the European constitution, initial opinion polls showed a clear majority in favour of the constitution. However, public opposition grew over time and the French ultimately rejected the treaty. In the two Irish referendums on the Treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008), polls predicted in favour of the treaties, but the Irish voted against, demonstrating that a consensus between government and opposition leaders is not always sufficient. Today, most polls show the UK Leave campaign taking the lead in the EU referendum. One of the few polls suggesting the opposite is Showt, an Irish communications company that developed a pan-European "sentiment poll". After 34,000 Showts on 20 June, the sentiment is that the British will stay in the EU, although 13 other European countries want them out.
  2. Clarity is key
    There is a lot of internal fighting in UK's Leave campaign concerning fundamental questions such as who should run the campaign and what should come after a Brexit. Furthermore, the Leave arguments are unclear concerning a post-Brexit landscape. While they argue that a Brexit would bring more freedom for the UK to trade and grow its economy, they have no substantial vision of what that actually means. At the 2004 UN referendum for the reunification of Cyprus, also known as the Annan plan, voters were asked to vote on a 9,000-page draft legislation that had been negotiated into its final form only a month before the vote. Nothing was clear. People voted based of their sentiment and rejected the plan, as even Cyprus legislators had not the time to read the whole text. Fear had overtaken all.
  3. The message needs a face
    Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message. He meant that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. But it is more than that. To have an impact, every message needs a face. Every campaign message is personal. The debate on Brexit focused mainly on the opinions of the most powerful big business. Later, both camps understood that the referendum will have a major impact on the everyday lives of the people. Both campaigns learned to attract human faces, making their cases more personal. When people feel connected to the issue they feel motivated to vote.
  4. Keep your humanity and dignity
    The murder of Jo Cox, a mother of two, by a far-right extremist is not only a tragedy for the UK. It is a tragedy for the civilised world and an attack on democracy. It is a sad example of how extreme nationalism and populism can divide and poison relations between people. More than ever, we need to support quality and independent journalism and scrutinise and challenge myths and populism. More than ever, politicians should strive to be ethical, honest and polite in all their communications. They should demonstrate decency and a commitment towards the people. Media should create transparency by making important things clear and relevant to the citizens. It is necessary to make messages coherent, lucid, concrete and free from jargon and pathos and connect them to the real human needs.

Tomorrow, 23 June, the citizens of the UK will vote. Should the UK leave the EU? The Brexit debate is something on which not only the British, but almost all European citizens have an opinion. The murder of Jo Cox may have turned the tide towards remaining in the EU. History, especially during periods of constant change like this one, is often shaped by random events.

How would I vote if I was allowed to? I would vote to stay. That is how I voted on the Brexit Showt. I believe that the UK would win more influence by leading, not leaving, the EU. It has a fantastic opportunity to lead Europe if it remains. It will face major economic and geopolitical risks if it leaves.

Image: iStock

Stavros Papagianneas

With a background including positions such as communication officer at the European Commission and press officer and spokesperson to various diplomatic missions in Brussels, Stavros Papagianneas is currently managing director of public relations consultancy StP Communications. He is a senior communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience in strategic communications, public affairs, public relations, media relations and event management. He has also been a member of the Working Party on Information of the Council of the European Union and is the author of the book Rebranding Europe. He has been listed in the Top 40 EU Influencers in 2017 and 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @StPapagianneas and @stpcomms.