Lessons from Brexit: The Uncivil War

Yerin reviews Brexit: The Uncivil War and discusses the takeaways.

BREXIT. The word that no one can escape from. Especially as communications professionals, it gets frustrating when all other sector news is over shadowed by the daily coverage of the latest twists and turns. The atmosphere at Westminster is so changeable and unpredictable that PR planning is more challenging than ever.  

Brexit: the Uncivil War

In the midst of all chaos, Channel 4 recently produced a movie based on the Vote Leave campaign, directed by the acclaimed director Toby Haynes featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the lead actor.

It was a particularly interesting watch for me as a non-UK resident during the time of campaign. I had not seen the controversial Vote Leave buses promising £350m to the NHS or frequently had to hear about Turkey being fast tracked for full EU membership. Or been exposed to the relentless so-called ‘project fear’ of the remain side.

I’d like to reflect on three main strategies I had picked up from the movie. I am not going to address the morality or transparency of the Vote Leave campaign, nor consider the politics behind it. I’m focusing on the campaign strategies from a communications professional’s point of view only.

 

First takeaway from the campaign: a simple, concise key message. 

The campaign director, Dominic Cummings, came up with a simple message that grabbed the target audience’s attention: Take Back Control. 

This brief but comprehensive phrase resonated with many who felt that were being marginalised, overlooked by politicians and disadvantaged when looking for work because of the UK’s membership of the EU. The Vote Leave campaign also used two penetrating examples. One being the message of “We send the EU £350 million every week, let’s fund our NHS instead” and the other one being “Turkey is joining”, referring to Turkey’s potential to join the EU and its consequences. 

The Leave camp came up with two phrases that really hit home with their target audience to win their hearts and minds. With the additional help of the giant print on the campaign buses, it provided the shock factor and it made many people seriously reconsider the UK’s place within the EU. The first phrase resonated with leave voters and it goes hand-in-hand with the key message of “Take back control”. Bringing £350m back to the UK for our own economy. Using the specific examples that grabbed that would be of particular relevance to the target audience clearly convinced a large number of people. 

“NHS bus”

Second takeaway from the campaign: targeting the apathetic voters, knowing this audience well.

Vote Leave identified and very effectively targeted the 3 million marginal voters.

While the Leave camp won 17,410,742 votes, remain secured 16,141,241 votes. The margin was 1,269,501 – about 1.25 million. Had the Remain sidebeen able to convince more of those 3 million voters, could the result have been reversed? It was a close thing with the majority being just over 50% of those polled.

Vote Leave targeted those people who traditionally had zero interest in politics. People that had never voted, had no inclination to vote and may never vote again. Their support was vital to the Leave campaign in securing their slender victory.

Last takeaway from the campaign: project fear, going for the heart instead of head.  

While the Remain camp focused on facts and figures using data to support their argument, the Leave campaign really captured the imagination of their voters by tapping into how some people in Britain felt about lack of control of our own laws and borders – fear. They even had a term for this: Project Fear. 

Obviously, a referendum or any vote should follow a logical thought process but when you are faced with a choice you are not always as receptive to argument based on logic as factors triggered by emotion. That is just human nature and Cummings knew this. Often, it is easier and faster to be persuasive when you strike a chord than relying on logic – the Remain camp’s biggest mistake, in my view.

So, what can we take away from this movie and one of the most controversial times in recent UK history? 

  1. It is important to grab the audience’s attention – your message needs to be appropriate for your target voters and leave a lasting impression.
  2. Carefully and strategically identify who your potential target audience are. Having a clear strategy for the apathetic audience could seem unnecessary for a PR campaign. However, there might be a group of people who appear irrelevant and uninterested in your communications, but who could have a great impact on your campaign. They could become stakeholders TO your audience. 
  3. The last takeaway I picked up from the movie; move their hearts as well as the heads. Data, information, numbers, figures and facts are certainly extremely important. Commissioned research, governmental reports, academic literature. All these play a significant role. But when trying to engage the general public, you need to also consider how your campaign will make them feel. 

I’ve recently learnt about a social housing resident who brought MPs to tears with her heartfelt story of escaping homelessness and mental illness. I frequently read case studies of different tenants and the stories about their families. When hearing about these stories, I’m focusing more on the emotional turbulence that they have been through rather than a specific number. 

Compelling stories that back up your data and have the ability to appeal to the audience’s heart as well as head can be very compelling –the argument supported by a recent report by Shelter.

Yerin Seo is account executive at See Media.