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How to win the next referendum: PR guru Mike Hind’s 10-point plan

PR guru Mike Hind went viral with a blog post on the Remain campaign’s failings. Now he’s canvassed the industry on how to win over the 52% in the long battle ahead

‘You lost. Get over it. The people have spoken and we voted to LEAVE. That’s democracy.’

‘Ah, but the people are stupid and xenophobic. They believed all those lies about £350m and a Turkish invasion. And the referendum shouldn’t have even happened. We must reverse the outcome.’

1. Stop calling Leavers stupid on social media

If you’re active on social media, this is a familiar exchange. The reply is also very bad PR and marketing for the anti-Brexit cause. Imagine receiving a message from a brand you don’t like saying you’re stupid for not liking it.

This matters because poor public relations, marketing, branding and general messaging was a problem that contributed to Remain’s defeat. Only by understanding those failures does the anti-Brexit movement have a chance of serious influence over the outcome of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Those basic promotional failings are well documented. My easily googled post ‘#epicfail How Britain Stronger In Europe blew it on the basics of PR & marketing communications’ is a good primer.

But what matters now is how the groups agitating against the worst excesses of Brexit communicate successfully. And the reassuring news is that there are many professionals out there with solid ideas about what won’t work and what does have the best chance of chiming with voters.

Dirk Singer (@dirktherabbit), a social media marketer, is clear on how not to approach communications from here on: ‘There has to be cut-through, especially now that the majority of people are paying even less attention to the issue. The sky hasn’t fallen in, life goes on and we’ve had nice weather. Many people are disengaged now. But the tabloid press is still hostile and those people are still seeing that message.

‘The second thing we need to do is stop talking only to ourselves and start talking to people on the other side in a way that demonstrates that we are interested in what motivated them to vote Leave. Calling someone stupid is never a winning line. And if you keep arguing that 17 million people is only a small proportion of the population it follows that any election is invalid.’

2. Accept that Article 50 is going to happen

Singer argues that merely opposing the referendum result is a non-starter and likely only to reinforce paranoia among many Leave voters that their voices may in the end not be heard. He also sees an unhelpful lack of focus in events such as the recent ‘March for Europe’: ‘It was like a group therapy session for Remainers, saying ‘look at us we’re angry’ and Eddie Izzard appearing on radio and TV talking about World War II. It was an expression of anger but I can’t see a connection between that and achieving an outcome everyone can be happy with.’

Instead he recommends working toward changing Leave voters’ minds, which means beginning a dialogue and that is where ‘cut-through’ messages will be key. But where should those messages appear? The anti-Brexit movement faces an almost universally hostile media which is getting anti-EU messages across every day. Whether or not you buy and read a newspaper, subliminally you are receiving messages from the right wing tabloid front pages every time you visit a supermarket or a newsagent. This is known in the advertising world as ‘effective frequency’ and the anti-Brexit movement needs to find a way to employ it.

3. Smart advising, funded by business who will lose from leaving the EU

Smart use of advertising, including outdoor poster sites, eye-level ads at urinals in motorway services and shopping centre toilets, cinema ads and even a ‘rebuttal service’ using the targeted advertising capability of Facebook to reach the readers of specific newspapers are among Singer’s ideas. None of this comes cheap, but business has a role to play and a campaign to retain single market benefits could be the testing ground. Singer is researching a crowd-funded approach to this.

4. Launch a campaign to retain single-market benefits

But what should the messages be? We know the original Remain messages failed to impress 17 million voters, so what does effective messaging mean today?

BrainJuicer (@BrainJuicer) is an international market research agency focused on behavioural science in communicating messages and brand values. Tom Ewing, a senior director in the BrainJuicer Labs’ London office, explains that there are three fundamental aspects influencing people’s judgement on the kind of offers presented during the referendum – fame, feeling and fluency. Fame is how readily a thing comes to mind, feeling is how good I feel about it and fluency is how quickly I can recognise and understand a choice.

The BrainJuicer take on how Leave nailed all three is explained in a post for the Marketing Society called ‘Why we left: a behavioural science view.’ It’s recommended reading and the insights it reveals are invaluable for any future campaign.

‘The suggestion ‘let’s not do Brexit at all’ faces some psychological problems,’ says Ewing. ‘First, Brexit already feels like a fait accompli. There is no real evidence of any significant Leavers’ regret and there is now a kind of present moment bias, which Theresa May is exploiting by arguing that we will make a success of it. Secondly, we’re in a phoney war situation during which things don’t seem, to most people, to be going wrong. Another problem is that people won’t blame themselves when things do start to go wrong. Those three things will be very hard to get over.’

5. Focus on Leave’s lies only when they are exposed after Brexit

Ewing believes a more subtle approach than simply telling people they were wrong will be most effective when any damaging impact of Brexit becomes apparent. He says: ‘You need a way of agreeing with people while saying ‘but also… what about this’.

‘People go on the defensive if you just say they’re wrong so you have to find something first on which you can agree. People need to be reassured that they aren’t to blame because they made a bad choice or they will just freeze.

‘But first of all you need things to actually be going wrong. You also need some strong visual symbols of what we’re losing. They can actually be quite small and petty. Something like having to pay to visit Spain may not be a big deal but it will make headlines because it’s tangible.

‘At this stage just pointing out all the broken promises risks making people sound like whiners. Only if public opinion starts to turn against the government and Brexit will the broken promises become quite important. But right now people feel good that we’re at least doing something and that the NHS will get some extra funding.’

In the case of fluency Ewing suggests that the case against the EU was made over time with petty, insignificant issues like banana regulation. In that way bananas then became a ‘distinctive asset’ for the Leave camp. It was easy to understand how the EU was affecting Britain.

He says: ‘But first you need to stop calling people stupid and then you need evidence that Brexit isn’t working. In the meantime it’s best to say ‘let’s try to make this work’ and then when bad things start happening, point it out in a sympathetic and regretful way.’

6. Find a campaign leader to rally around

The theme of ‘distinctive assets’ and ‘Johnsonian’ figures emerges constantly among communication professionals picturing the way forward for an anti-Brexit strategy. Jon Worth (@jonworth), a German-based writer and political campaigner watched the referendum from a distance. In conversation he is scathing about the ‘lukewarm establishment Remain’ campaign leadership who have since disappeared from view.

He suggests most of the former Stronger In leadership viewed the referendum as just another professional gig and have now walked away, expressing little regret and certainly no guilt over their failure. Worth therefore sees a need for more overtly enthusiastic figures at the heart of any campaign to resist Brexit.

7. And a supporting cast of radical enthusiasts ‘We need radical outriders, who really push, really care and are motivated to keep Britain at the heart of Europe. We need them as well as the more pragmatic figures who are doing good work, like Chuka Umunna. Identifying those people should be a priority.’

Behavioural expert Warren Hatter (@warrenhatter) sees difficulties until concrete problems do emerge with Brexit. He too singles out a general lack of Brexit bad news in the current climate as a major challenge for anti-Brexit activists. But at this point he identifies one fundamental question for anti-Brexit groups.

‘If the idea is to win people over you have to first of all ask them for something. There is nothing to be gained by telling them they were wrong or made a mistake. But you do have to be clear what you want them to do. You also need to understand that simply changing your mind is not a behaviour.’

8. Use slogans like ‘hands off our health workers’…

But if and when another decision is offered to voters, he agrees with Tom Ewing on the need for strong symbolism.

‘You need symbolic phrases encapsulating something people might not want to lose. It could be possible to develop a short phrase such as ‘hands off our health workers’. You need symbols that are salient to people’s lives and which feel urgent. Even if the government said all existing EU nationals could stay, it’s so emblematic of what leaving the EU means you could still hammer that. Politicians with profile saying ‘hands off our health workers’ a lot could be very effective.

‘But if you’re going to use behavioural effects really cleverly you need an ask. Currently there is no ask.’

What is beginning to emerge is a nascent creative underground movement aiming to raise awareness of Brexit’s consequences. Twitter users may already have seen the work of Chris Norris (@Remainia1) and his experimental #BetterWithoutBrexit messages.

9. … and clever, humorous marketing

Manchester-based Norris is a senior creative in a well-known brand communication agency, creating and collaborating in his own time with others on the emerging anti-Brexit scene. Under the intentionally humorous brand ‘Remainia’ he is creating potentially ‘distinctive assets’ that could – over time – help to sway public opinion. Remainia has evolved from a not-for-profit online shop selling tee shirts, mugs, badges and more with anti-Brexit and pro-EU messages.

Youthful, idiomatic and light-hearted with serious underlying messages is key to Norris’s approach. The Remainia tagline is ‘Because the alternative is rubbish’ and his first mock advertisement evokes thwarted British pride and the embarrassing reality of false promises. It contrasts the dream of a sports car with Union Jack paintwork and a Brexit-inspired block of scrap metal.

10. Don’t tell Leavers ‘I told you so’ when it all goes wrong

Norris says: ‘All the messages on both sides so far have been pandering to their own audience and there is very little conversation. We should be having personal conversations and asking the question ‘are you really happy with what’s happening now with Brexit, even though you voted for it’ but not in an aggressive way. And telling people ‘I told you so’ will only make them dig their heels in harder.’

Remainia will evolve, he says, under a different name in due course. It will shift from what he describes as a ‘sanctuary for the 48’ into something with which to begin engaging potentially disaffected Leavers.The original Stronger In campaign was clumsy and uninspiring in the face of an opponent which understood branding, marketing and communications. What is emerging is a fresher grassroots movement with real communicators at its heart. They are people who earn their living knowing how to advise brands and inspire consumers to choose product A rather than product B. The people who were sidelined by the gigging campaign policy wonks are quietly taking control. To borrow the immortal phrase of the hacking network Anonymous, the unspoken message to hard Brexit zealots could very well be… expect us.

Mike Hind is an independent journalist, PR and marketing consultant.

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