“That most valuable of analytical tools”, former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke used to like to say about hindsight.
And so it has proved for everyone who failed to pick the dash by Britons from Europe last week.
Suddenly some new learnings look startlingly clear. And nearly all are from a public relations and communications perspective.
Those on the Remain side were convinced of the rightness of their cause. But how they represented that cause turned out to be the problem.
In an acrimonious populist shoot-out of slogans, both sides talked across each other. Leavers offered a compelling romantic vision of renewed British vigour that was not entirely free of xenophobia. When their opponents wrung their hands about the future, their worries were swatted aside as “Campaign Fear”.
So, three takeaways:
1. When you want to persuade someone, it pays to think about what is important to them – or else they might just not hear you.
Research showed a sharp divide between what was most important to each side.
Remainers were mostly concerned about the economy. Leavers worried about immigration. For them, warnings about the collapse of the British pound (even if true) fell on deaf ears.
It also helps not to tell people they are idiots if they disagree with you.
Former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King criticised a dispiriting Remain campaign that not only subjected Leavers to scaremongering but talked down to them as well.
“If you say to someone: ‘You are an idiot if you don’t agree with me’, you are not likely to bring them in your direction”, he said.
2. Be positive and appeal to the heart as well as the head.
If your message is always a warning not to do something, people wonder what you stand for. If one side succeeds in making people feel good, its opponent better have very strong arguments – and should at least try to make people feel good about them too. As well as saying what would be bad about leaving Europe, the Remainers needed to get across the benefits of staying. They also needed to offer a compelling vision for being part of Europe that people could connect with emotionally.
3. Context is almost everything.
Victory usually goes to whoever succeeds in framing an issue in people’s minds. Although many Conservative MPs opposed Brexit, they had nevertheless allowed Euro-scepticism to become an unchallenged part of British mental furniture. A first step for Remainers was to reframe the discussion and challenge the negative assumptions, even if some of them had helped create those assumptions in the first place.
The Economist commented on this a week before the vote, saying that David Cameron had said almost nothing positive about Europe for a decade. If Britons could now see no good reason to stay, he had only himself to blame.