We need accurate, relevant and easy-to-understand information about the process ahead

Communicating about Brexit and other policy issues needs to go beyond soundbites and political point scoring.

A job ad sparked some amusement among some of my friends on social media a few months ago. The job, Head of Communications at the Department for Exiting the European Union, didn’t seem one for anyone who likes to be liked. By my reckoning, everything the successful appointee says is likely to result in at least half the country hating them — possibly more than half, given that the reasons for voting one way of the other in the UK’s EU referendum were varied, as have been the expectations after the event, and that many people were unable to vote anyway.

Aside from joking speculation about whether experts or non-British EU citizens would be welcome to apply or whether this might actually be a very easy job given the insistence so far in communicating nothing about Brexit, there is definitely a need for good communication about the process, especially now that Article 50 has been triggered and talks with the EU are underway, albeit perhaps clouded by UK election talk.

It is clear from the less political of the commentary about the EU negotiations that the process is not simple. I imagine there will be disappointments and compromises for all concerned. The new — and very thick-skinned — person responsible for communicating about this will need to help the country move beyond the back and forth Remainers vs Brexiteers (I’ve deliberately chosen the politest of the labels here) squabbles and speculation to giving us a clear, fact-based idea of what is going on.

And, to do that, perhaps it’s worth looking back at the communications lessons from the referendum campaigns. A year on, and as the UK gears up for a snap election next month, I’ve been thinking about what messages I remember from the weeks before the EU referendum. A few spring to mind straight away:

  • First, there’s that slogan on the bus, a bright-red, very British-looking bus no less. For all the semantic arguments about whether it was a suggestion, an idea or a promise, the intended — and received — message was clear: leaving the EU will free up loads of money for the NHS. I saw versions of this message echoed again and again in my Facebook feed. The fact that the £350 million number was disproved made no difference to the embedding of the message in people’s minds. It was a brilliant, if dishonest, bit of marketing.
  • Second, there was Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster. It was horrible and callous and lacking in evidence but it played to people’s fears and it stuck in people’s minds. I hated it — and I remember it. More recently, we saw similar negative tactics work in the US Presidential race — outrageous pronouncements from Trump that play into people’s fears and give voice to the views they didn’t think they could express.
  • The third one is the idea of ‘taking back control’. It’s a very compelling message and one that Trump has also used. I definitely like the idea of having control — except that, in reality, control often comes with responsibility and an expanded ‘to do’ list. I want control of my taxes but I hate filling in a tax return. I want control of my car insurance but in the end I use a broker to select a good quote for me. I want to do lots of recycling but I am very happy for my local council to organize the collection and sorting of my recycling for me. A few years ago I was at a conference with around 300 delegates, all professional people, mainly from the UK but also from other parts of the EU. One of the speakers asked the audience to put their hands up if they knew the name of any of their MEPs. Around seven hands went up. The speaker then asked if anyone had ever contacted their MEP. Just one hand (which, I’m proud to say, was mine). For all the talk of taking back control, I don’t think we have been very proactive about taking advantage of the control we already have.
  • For my fourth message, I finally come to one from the Remain side and it is the phrase ‘Stronger in’. It’s a decent message but, despite having gone out and campaigned for Remain and handed out many leaflets, I can’t remember any other messages — and maybe this one was only memorable for being the name of the campaign group and therefore something I saw in my inbox most days. Even then, it lacks the personal connection of the other three messages I’ve mentioned.

I find it frustrating that it is so hard to think of strong, memorable Remain messages. I believe there were lots of good arguments to be made for staying in the EU but somehow they didn’t translate into messages that tugged at people’s heartstrings. The only more general impression that I remember was seeing Leave and Remain leaflets side-by-side and noticing that every bullet point on the Remain leaflet included a reference and none of the leaflets on the Leave leaflet did.

So, what might be learnt from these messages and applied to communication about Brexit and UK policy going forward — or indeed anybody wanting to communicate clearly? I’d suggest:

  • First and foremost, stick to verifiable facts. Those references on the Remain leaflet weren’t sexy and they may not have swayed many voters but they provided some independent assurance of what was stated. Now that Article 50 has been triggered and a general election looms, many politicians may be haunted by a big red bus and a financial ‘suggestion’ that it doesn’t look like they have a hope of ever putting into practice. More importantly than politics and comms though, responsible use of facts and evidence is vital for democracy.
  • Second, appeal to what people care about. The strongest messages in the referendum campaign were about things that people had an emotional response to. The StrongerIn focus on the economy and trade was, quite frankly, dull.
  • Third, be sure to communicate and do so clearly. The referendum campaign was marked by grand promises, wild speculations and mud slinging. The post-referendum period has been marked by political upheaval, more mud slinging and an almost complete absence of real information. I will not stoop to call ‘Brexit means Brexit’ a message. It tells us nothing and leaves a vacuum for tabloid speculation.

I imagine that the job communicating about Brexit has now been filled. I hope that the Department for Exiting the European Union picked somebody really good who is committed to giving us accurate, relevant and easy-to-understand information about the process ahead. Good luck to them!

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