A Brexit for all seasons


Phew. What a week. By now you’re probably thinking “what I really need is some more Brexit analysis”

As Terry from the Likely Lads famously said “I’d offer you a beer but I’ve only got six”. I’m sure, like me, you’ve had it up to the eyes with claim and counterclaim but in such momentous times I thought it would be remiss not to remark on some of the communications issues reflected in the campaign.

Don’t worry this isn’t another political polemic and will focus on the comms – that’s assuming we still need comms in an apocalyptic wasteland where the populace eats from bins and competes in organised cage fights for fuel.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons called ‘A burns for all seasons’ where the titular billionaire makes a biopic of himself so outlandish and hubristic that he touches the very hand of God and boards a spaceship that emits rainbows.

This was my overwhelming impression of the PR work on both sides of the debate and what is abundantly clear is that we’re now firmly living in a post factual world where claim, counter claim and bluster don’t seem to have any basis in reality or fact.

The death of spin around political comms has been loudly trumpeted for the last decade or so and it certainly seems that way, but only because we’ve graduated to completely making things up now. It felt like both sides struggled to argue the reality, the facts and the actual real life outcomes (crowned by the ‘sick of experts’ nadir that became a motif for the leave argument).

To have the extra NHS funding pledge denied within a day, despite being written on the side of a bus in massive letters and still in use as the official header on the vote leave Twitter page is pretty much beyond parody. At the same time the remain team couldn’t, or wouldn’t, build a consistent or compelling story on the tangible benefits of staying in the EU.

One thing that struck me is that many comms people in local government who pioneered the use of social media to communicate with residents in a really meaningful way must have shuddered at the way the political machine has chewed this up and spewed it out in the past few months.

Companies and public sector organisations have been getting better and better honing direct to market tactics over the past decade and now political parties and institutions are adapting and in this case weaponising the strategy.

Adopting social and digital across all our campaigns made a huge amount of sense because it was quicker, more convenient for everyone and provided access to a whole new audience. It let people react and respond in real time while bosses also loved it because it was much cheaper to engage people in a more targeted and yet informal way.

But crucially it meant that organisations and companies could go direct to audiences, cutting out the filter of established media. Even the most one sided parts of the traditional media who have already picked a side still acknowledge basic principles of fact checking and holding politicians to account. Those rules simply don’t seem to apply in the social space where a huge bulk of the population now get their news or form their opinions.

In this post fact, real time, yes or no campaign that has seen most of the information people receive going unchallenged and unverified, Twitter and Facebook are now far more tabloid that the tabloids.

When thinking about social media at councils back in the very early days this is something we worried about but strongly felt that the community online was able to police itself. For every complaint based on a misconception in our timeline, there were two or three further comments from the public explaining that we couldn’t afford a gritter for every resident to use. Common sense prevailed and the publics on those networks acted as the voice of reason.

That, to an extent, I still feel is true but for personal use I think there’s much more of an echo chamber affect now that either confirms our own bias or sees the algorithm shower us with likeminded views. How many times have you heard people saying “I don’t know anyone who voted in/out”?

Is social media also polarising us and our opinions? Pre-social media I probably would have had no idea which way a friend or colleague would have voted and nor would I really have wanted to. Now we see opinions plastered all over Facebook with such vigour that its harming basic relationships.

When the level of debate is reduced to twibbons and video clips on Facebook we should all worry about the future of democracy. Often spuriously ill informed, designed to appeal to the most base instincts and with complex arguments distilled down to soundbites ‘buyer beware’ should be part of the price on the ticket.

Despite the dirt it also provided us with some of the funnier moments with #CatsAgainstBrexit #CatsForBrexit #dogsatpollingstations #dogsagainstbrexit all raising a smile. I also loved the memes spawned by the Keith Adams 93yr old mum tweet.


Regardless of our own opinions on the result we get the democracy we deserve and in this case it feels like neither side provided the public with the level of information and engagement that we deserve. When all is said and done good communications should be about listening, engaging and in this case promoting understanding so that people had a good idea of the arguments for and against.

Against that standard, and regardless of the result, doesn’t it all feel a bit Roy Hodgson?

For a much better and well informed look at the social media voices of Brexit see here: https://medium.com/@slavacm/social-media-voices-in-the-uks-eu-referendum-brexit-or-bremain-what-does-the-internet-say-about-ebbd7b27cf0f#.r33parq5z

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