The Guest Blog

Communicating Brexit

Guest blog post by Stavros Papagianneas, Managing Director at StP Communications.

A few days ago, Labour MP Jo Cox has been shot dead in the UK by a man shouting “Britain First“. Both “Stronger In” and “Vote Leave” camps suspended campaigning following the incident, for a few days. It was the tragic apotheosis of a unprecedented and extreme intense campaign that crossed the boundaries of freedom of expression.

What had to be a campaign based on political communication, degenerated to doom and gloom forecasts. It escalated in lies, drama, hollow rhetoric and an assassination.

The leave campaign engaged the public by using the power of narratives. Feelings of national pride have been triggered by presenting an historical narrative in which Britain is a tremendous and influential country. In the same style of Donald Trump’s : Let’s make America great again.

Those who want to leave argued that by becoming part of the EU, London has been limited in its greatness 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. London sends 350 M euro every week to Brussels, London always get bossed around by Brussels and Turkey will join the EU in 2020, were of the most misleading messages.

Brexit supporters warned that if Turkey was allowed to join, free movement rules within the EU could see many of their citizens seek work in the UK and could lead to a five million increase in the population by 2030. Despite being told that their facts are inexact, those who want to leave persisted advocating disinformation on many issues from migration to the EU payments.

The remain camp used 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, the seas we fish in, and have protected the wildlife which crosses national boundaries, they said.

Here are 4 lessons to be learned from the campaigns in favor and against EU membership :

We can’t take a yes or no vote for granted – including the polls

At the French referendum for the European constitution that was held in 2005, the French rejected the treaty. Initial opinion polls showed a clear majority in favour of the constitution, but public opposition grew over time. Just a few days before the referendum, the Yes campaign’s lead became smaller than the opinion poll’s margin of error. The No votes in the Irish referendums on the Treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) demonstrated that a consensus between government and opposition leaders is not always sufficient. In both referendums, the polls predicted a vote in favor of the treaties, but the Irish voted against. Most polls show the UK Leave campaign taking the lead in the EU referendum. One of the few polls suggesting the opposite of this is Showt. An Irish based communications company that developed a pan-European “sentiment poll”. Not only for the citizens of the UK but also for the rest of European countries as well. 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.

Clarity is key

There is a lot of internal fighting in UK’s Leave campaign concerning matters like who should run the campaign, and what should come after an exit. The arguments of those that want to leave are not clear concerning: what would the day after will look like. While it is argued that it would bring more freedom for the UK to trade and grow its economy, there are no substantial visions on what that means. At the UN referendum of 2004 for the reunification of Cyprus, also known as the Annan plan, voters were asked to vote on the base of 9.000 pages of draft legislation, that had been negotiated into its final form only a month before the vote. Nothing was clear. People voted on the base of their sentiment and rejected the plan, as even Cyprus legislators had not the time to read the whole text. Fear had overtaken everything.

The message needs a face

The communication theory philosopher Marshall McLuhan, used to say that the medium is the message. He was meaning 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. It is not only that. Every message needs a face to have impact. Every campaign message is personal. The debate on Brexit was focusing mainly on the opinions of the most powerful and big business. Then both camps understood that the referendum will have a major impact on the everyday lives of the people. Both campaigns attracted human faces and they made it more personal. People feel connected to the issue and feel motivated to vote.

Keep humanism and dignity

The murder of Jo Cox, a mother a two, by a far-right extremist is not only a tragedy for the UK. It is a tragedy for the whole civilised world and an attack on democracy. It is a sad example of how extreme nationalism and populism can divide and poison the relations between people. More than ever, we need to support quality and independent journalism and scrutiny and challenge myths and populism. More than ever, politicians should stay ethical, honest and polite in all their communications. They should demonstrate decency and 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, free from jargon and pathos and, connect them to the real human needs.

Next Thursday 23 June the citizens of 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 referendum is not just a key matter for the UK, but also for the rest of Europe. The murder on Jo Cox may turn the tide towards remaining in the EU. History, especially during periods of constant change as the one we experience currently, is often shaped by random events.

What would I vote if I was allowed to? I would vote for a stay. I believe that UK should get more influence leading, not leaving EU. It has a fantastic opportunity to help leading Europe if it remains. It will face major economic and geopolitical risks if it leaves.

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