There is still no date for the UK’s EU referendum and the deadline of 2017 may seem a long way off, but the “In” campaign is starting late and on the back foot for several reasons. Most Britons are naturally Eurosceptic and many are also seriously ill-informed about the benefits of EU membership. The subject is, in reality, too big, too complex and too far-reaching for most to comprehend.
In addition, the “In” campaign is navigating its way through uncharted waters. The last referendum on the subject was in 1975 and was held under almost entirely different circumstances. Plus, the issues at stake remain unclear, as the prime minister has yet to unveil the reforms against which this referendum will be set. The result is that the “In” campaign has less than a full tool-box with which to campaign.
Meanwhile, the “Out” campaign, although divided, has some charismatic spokespeople and titillates by selling the exciting prospects of change, increased sovereign control, and regained stature on the world stage. It is able to inflate the electorate’s sense of British pride.
So Sir Stuart Rose (pictured above), chairman of online grocer Ocado, former CEO of Marks and Spencer and head of the “In” campaign, has his work cut out. Here are some dos and don'ts for him and his team.
1. Recruit brilliant people
To front the message, enlist people who are respected, trusted and come across as impartial. “I don’t know whose opinion to trust,” is the most common cry I hear from those I debate the subject with.
Of particular importance will be diversity – traditional “suits”, by themselves, will not reach great swathes of the population. Recruit younger influencers with strong social media followings and who represent different interests to stand alongside the heavy hitters. This is something we are starting to see in the campaign video below. But the problem with this video is that it is a one-way communication, in which many of those featured feel more like actors than authentic people.
Trust in politicians is at an all-time low so political figureheads won’t cut it as campaign leaders. They should stay in the shadows and give focus to their chosen representatives.
2. Get a strong slogan
The campaign must work hard now to define a clear, simple, strategic positioning statement for the campaign. This must be based on insights from research, voter “hot-buttons”, promises that are genuinely deliverable upon success, and truths that cannot be challenged by the “Out” campaigners.
It needs to be enough like a slogan to stick in people’s minds and should be repeated often by all campaign evangelists. It must underpin every piece of communication, from conversations and interviews to tweets and posters, to ensure consistency for the audience.
Each piece of communication can highlight a different facet of the campaign, but all should connect with, reinforce and be reinforced by this foundation position. The chosen campaign representatives should be empowered with a deep understanding of this position and then set free to use it wisely.
3. Frame your message
Deploy a careful mix of messages that appeal to both emotion and reason. Emotional messages will appeal more strongly to self-centred motives than societal benefits, but all need to be meticulously underpinned by facts.
Rational arguments will be more fact driven, but behavioural economics research shows that they may have greater effect by appealing to the electorate’s emotions through a concept known as “loss framing” – ie. by highlighting what will be lost if Britain severs its connections with the EU.
Clearly, the issues raised need to be as personally relevant to people as possible, so the campaign should advertise the potential consequences of leaving the EU, and tailor the details of its message to each individual audience.
This is especially important given that a proportion of weak and potentially swinging “In” voters are currently most fearful that the alternative will be worse.
Of course, the facts should be unassailable, supported by reputable documented sources that the media and others who wish to follow up the claims can explore.
4. Don’t patronise
The risk when deploying heads of industry and articulate public figures is that they may appear to talk down to the rest of us – if only because of their intelligence and stature. Tone of voice is at least as important as content when delivering a message. Empowering ordinary people to take an active part in the campaign will help to overcome this risk.
5. Use social media
On social media, an army of ordinary people across different channels can build a powerful bank of opinion, akin to the user-reviews that are so prevalent and powerful among today’s consumers. The campaign must set up catchy hashtags and encourage supporters to share, like and say why they support the campaign’s message. Critically, the ‘war office’ must capture, analyse and act on data emerging from the social sphere to shape future messaging.
Here, the campaign should tap into the persuasive power of positivity to engineer attitudes towards the EU. Celebrity videos, selected carefully and orchestrated with subtlety, will encourage sharing and disseminating the message. Shareable articles, opinions, facts and other content should be targeted at journalists. Here, the voices of ordinary Europeans explaining why they want to see Britain remain part of a reformed Europe will add to the positivity.
6. Don’t ‘advertise’
Audiences are increasingly sceptical of messaging that is gimmicky, trite or overtly commercial. The use of authentic storytelling through ordinary people’s experiences is a powerful way of getting a message across, particularly among younger people.
The campaign should target specific audiences via age-appropriate media. But bear in mind that Twitter’s fastest growing audience is 55-64, while for Google and Facebook the fastest growth is in the 45-54 category.
Each mass opportunity should send a simple, sincere message that’s illustrated with a clear, memorable and relevant example. Anything that comes across as preachy or a monologue or preach will rapidly weaken public appeal. Authenticity is crucial.
7. Prepare for the worst
Prepare for disaster management. War-gaming every imaginable scenario and preparing a rapidly deployable response against each one is vital. The emotive nature of the debate, the enormity of the consequences, the political and economic minefields that lie between today and referendum day, all suggest that the ground under foot will be unstable and rapidly changing.
8. Plan ahead
Much research suggests that voters who are averse to change – what you may call the “inertia” vote – become more prevalent as polling day approaches. But this should not be counted upon. So select at least one (preferably more) significant, powerful and motivating message to give a high-profile release in the final week before the vote. More than one is desirable to prepare for opposition counters and changing scenarios. However tempting it might be to release early, keep this big-hitting message until the final days to win over swing-voters and secure the support of those who may be weakening.
9. Make that call
Finally, don’t forget to tie in Lynton Crosby – the political strategist who helped the Conservatives win an outright majority at the 2015 general election and is described as a “master of the dark political arts”. And do it now – before the other side does.