Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few weeks, you’ve at least heard news surrounding the UK’s recent referendum to leave the European Union (EU), which is commonly called “Brexit.” I’ve been strangely fascinated by Brexit. Partially because I just love saying “Brexit,” but mostly because, as someone with a background in political communications, it was fascinating to watch the two sides of the referendum, “Leave” and “Remain,” communicate their message to voters. Some of it has been quintessentially British; but a large portion of it translates well to any campaign. As the U.S. (and globe) looks to Trump v. Hillary as the next big decision; and as New Jersey prepares for a number of referendums on upcoming ballots (casinos in North Jersey, funding pensions, etc), I’ve dug down into lessons we can learn from Brexit, and how you can use it to your advantage.
I should preface this post by saying this isn’t commentary on the result itself and what it means for the global economy — there’s enough of that out there, and who cares if I agree with it or not? Instead, this blog is looking at the referendum through the lens of effective communication and using it to our advantage as communicators.
Lesson 1: “Good” Media Coverage Isn’t the Only Way to Encourage Your Audience to Act- This one actually hurts for me to write, but it’s true, and I’d be doing you a disservice if I glossed over it. Let me be clear: earned media is still important. If you aren’t doing it, the other side is, and you need to be heard. But, you can no longer put all of your eggs in the “earned media basket.” It was pretty clear, to me, that the media generally regarded supporters of the “Leave” campaign (and their spokespeople such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson) as xenophobic kooks selfishly disregarding how a Brexit may affect global citizenry as a whole. (Sound like a certain Presidential nominee here in the States that no one thought had a chance a year to two ago? If you need more proof, google “Boris Johnson hair” and you’ll see the similarities go beyond public opinion. Seriously, do it.)
Despite this overwhelming sentiment in the media, the Leave campaign won. Communicators used to focus on “good” media coverage only, but times have changed. I still cringe when a story doesn’t necessarily go my client’s way, but “good” media coverage is no longer the only way to encourage your audience to act in your favor. You need a lot of tools in the “communications basket” these days, and you don’t have to shy away from the media if you feel they don’t agree with your issue or project. Example: The media bashed Donald Trump for his tweet about taco bowls at Trump Towers and how much he loves Mexicans (fair: it was totally ridiculous), but what does the general public remember? Donald Trump saying, “I love Mexicans!” I don’t know what Hillary loves, because even though the media generally seems to like her much more, she didn’t get a whole lot of press coverage that day.
Lesson 2: Communicate in 2-Second Soundbites– When you are working on a complicated issue, this is extremely hard to do, but the truth is, we live in a “2-second world.” Spend the time to communicate big issues in small, short, ways. Remain’s campaign slogan was “Britain Stronger in Europe.” Leave’s campaign slogan was, “Let’s Take Back Control.” Does the Leave slogan sound something along the lines of, “Make America Great Again?” Yep. In both of these cases, four words invite the audience to dream of a better life, make them feel like they are part of the “team” that can make it happen, and join together to fight for a common goal.
Lesson 3: Information Gatekeepers are Losing Control– This isn’t a knock on the media, this is a knock on communications consultants like me, actually. Ten years ago, I had the ability to shape a message by buying time on tv and radio, sending direct mailers, and buying ad space in local newspapers. I could see the needle move in our favor after a big media buy. But now, we’re competing with streaming television (Apple TV, Google Chrome), satellite radio, sponsored ads on social media, and internet algorithms. Here’s the truth — let’s say I am a huge fan of Hillary Clinton. Once I start clicking on her links, hashtags, etc; Google goes into overdrive to serve me more of the same. So, I am less likely to stumble across a Donald Trump ad after visiting her campaign website. Similarly, I now have the ability to watch my favorite TV shows via Netflix (no commercials) so I’m not passively seeing ads on television or even catching the end of a news cast while waiting for my favorite TV show to start. Newspaper ads? They are replaced with various internet ads chosen by Google, not necessarily the publication I’m reading.
What does this mean? It means we have to go back and rely on these 2-second soundbites that ignite our audience’s passion for a better tomorrow and less on, frankly, sound statistics that make sense but lack the passion that translates into action. It also means consultants like me have to constantly reinvent where we place our paid advertising and really review the results to ensure it’s working.
Lesson 4: Polling Isn’t As Important As Passion– If you followed the polls leading up to Brexit, you thought there was no way the Leave campaign would pull it off. Heck, Nigel Farage himself conceded, un-conceded, then won. What happened here? Although we don’t have a name for it in the States, it’s a phenomenon called “Shy Tory Syndrome” in the UK. Basically, when people support a campaign, candidate or issue that’s being defined as “racist, stupid, xenophobic, discriminatory, white trash, etc” they aren’t going to exactly tell a stranger on the phone that they support this very thing. But, in the privacy of a voting both, they support whatever cause/candidate they want.
And just because you answer poll questions doesn’t mean you actually get yourself to a voting booth and pull that lever. 75% of 18-24 year olds in the UK supported Remain. But, only 36% of them were actually passionate enough to go out and vote. Meanwhile, 81% of 55-64 year olds went out and voted, and as you can guess, this age group was much more likely to support the Leave campaign.
Polling is important. GOTV is more important. And that means igniting the passion of your supporters to create action.
What do all of these lessons mean? It means political communications need to change with public opinion and technology. Trust in elected officials is at an all-time low, the general public doesn’t feel things are getting better, and approval ratings for elected officials are plummeting. We’re being bombarded daily with messages, media and memes. We can no longer dismiss the “other side” as “ridiculous and absurd.” It isn’t working. If it were, we’d be more likely to have a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz as our Republican nominee. Build your audience by igniting their passion though 2-second soundbites and be willing to step outside the box. Because the “outside thinkers” of the world are gaining traction while the “mainstream thinkers” are falling a bit behind.