The PRCA recently hosted a panel discussion on the role of Public Relations in Britain’s forthcoming referendum on EU membership (click to tweet). Since then, David Cameron has said a draft deal on his reform demands delivers the “substantial change” he wants to see to the UK’s relationship with the EU. With all this in mind, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on how PR might influence the final outcome.
We began our discussion by reflecting on how this referendum will be one of the most important decisions the British people will consider in a generation—and how with no date set, the two camps, Remain and Leave, are neck and neck in the polls.
This closeness means two things. There is a huge amount to play for and the strengths of PR—its listening capability, its influencer mapping, its quest for human truth, and its storytelling—will be vital.
Given this context, plus how voters tend to get more pragmatic closer to actual decisions, some big political beasts are yet to enter the fray, and the real campaigning is yet to reach top gear—we all agreed we had a long way to go.
So as we looked ahead to a tumultuous year for UK politics, the issues that really struck me were:
- Colin Byrne’s argument that influencers from the worlds of traditional media, the internet and celebrity will frame how the public understand and weight the facts. In an environment where much of the public (including myself) possess a modest understanding of the complex issues involved—trusted and relatable information sources will be vital. So far, the debate has been centered on the views of big business and politicians. Cut-through will come from elsewhere.
- Matt Carter’s assertion that the Remain camp should be worried about their electoral numbers. According to the polls, the Remain camp’s support is bolstered by a lot of younger people. So in opinion polls they do well. However if you look at which demographics actually turn out to vote, older voters are far more likely to visit the polls – and thus the Remain Camp have a big challenge to overcome.
- Lionel Zetter’s advice on how staying in or leaving the EU needs to be broken down into how it will affect individuals in tangible ways. At present the debate has concentrated on macro-economic issues, when voters will also look at what is in it for them as individuals and families. This means the fate of small businesses, their freedom of movement, immigration and their sense of identity through Britain’s place in the world.
- Gill Morris’ belief that the public’s opinions on any potential Brexit will be driven by emotions like hope, anger and fear. There may, or may not, be a compelling logical case for the Britain to stay within the EU. But the emotional lens through which people see the Brexit question will be key to the final outcome. Gill argued that you need to feel a strong emotion to even visit a polling booth. This may benefit the Leave campaign as it’s obviously easier to feel strongly about change than retaining a status-quo.
So in summary, key influencers from many walks of life will frame the debate, the Remain camp badly need a way to mobilize younger people, both camps should personalize the consequences of the referendum and the best emotional case for action will have a very good chance of winning.
I quipped that the easiest way to achieve all these goals at once would be to ask Adele to record a song about broken hearts and missed opportunities due to new visa requirements for weekends in Ibiza. This freebie for the UK Remain campaign was a jokey remark and a long way from the broad integrated strategy a successful campaign will need to muster.
However, I hope it does serve to illustrate how all-modern political campaigns CAN and MUST employ some highly creative thinking if they are to reach today’s complex audiences and inspire the commitment necessary for action.