Mid April saw the official start of the campaign to either persuade us to Remain or to Leave when we vote in the European Referendum in June. The Electoral Commission has designated two organisations as official campaigners. On the In side is Britain Stronger in Europe. On the Out side is Vote Leave.
In the last week a new poll showed the Remain side pulling ahead. But the gap is still small and with weeks of argument still to go, no one can be certain of the result.
Of course the official ten weeks follows months of activity by organisations which launched last year. So it’s possible to get a sense of what the campaigns have been like so far, and what they might do, or need to do, in future.
As a Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, I’ve been taking a close interest in what the campaigns have been doing. Specifically I’ve been looking at press releases to get a sense of proactivity, levels of activism in general, choice of spokesperson and use of language. And while clearly we are now about to see things step up a gear, this early insight is useful.
Over a period of five weeks, up to 8 April, I looked at everything in the “news” section of the Britain Stronger in Europe website and the Vote Leave website. I began by looking simply at language, but soon found that these sections provided information about a much wider range of factors.
So what did I find?
Before going any further, a key point is that the level of press release/news production by Vote Leave is noticeably higher than that by Stronger In during this period.
Firstly, both campaigns have been more reactive than proactive. This means using other events, which might be Euro negative, Euro positive or Euro neutral to make statements. A key example of this is the Tata Steel crisis which was used by Vote Leave to launch a number of statements.
When you work on a campaign, there are always more external events than events of your own. This is simply the maths. So I am not surprised that the campaigns were more reactive. What did surprise me however was the proactivity score. Before looking, I would have assumed that Stronger In would be the more proactive of the two. This was because Vote Leave, by its very nature, is reacting to a state of affairs. In fact, Vote Leave showed significantly more proactivity than its opponent. Often this proactivity consisted of collating existing statistics and re-presenting it, with planned timing, as a dossier, or report or statement.
Secondly, there has been a difference in press releases in the type of spokesperson chosen. When I refer to spokesperson in this context, I mean the individual quoted. Stronger In has mainly used UK politicians. Vote Leave has mainly used campaign officials. Now this is initially surprising. Those of us who have worked on political campaigns know that we are meant to use the actual politician when using quotes. However in the case of Vote Leave, the campaign official used, in virtually every case, is Matthew Elliot. He runs the campaign, but more importantly is the former head of the Taxpayers Alliance. In this role, Mr Elliot became well known to journalists and was ever-ready with a quote. This means he is perhaps more suitable in some cases as a spokesperson than those politicians signed up to the cause.
There may however be another feature to be deduced from this. Using a campaign official will definitely be quicker than tracking down a politician to approve a quote. This is however only possible when there is not a complicated sign-off process involving those politicians. So it seems Vote Leave is simply better equipped for speed and this spokesperson-use is both a sign of speed and a way of making it possible.
The importance of speed in a campaign cannot be overstated. Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s winning campaigns set great store by this. Vote Leave’s news page helpfully records not just the date of publication but the timing. Stronger In does not record the time. But it is possible to make a judgement about speed (particularly speed of response) by looking at whether statements come out on the day of relevance or a day or so later. In each case in which I was able to compare speed, Vote Leave was faster.
Thirdly, I was interested in the types of statements being made. US academic William Benoit, in his Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse, argues that political contest statements fit into three categories. These are Acclaim, Attack and Defence. This is a little too simple for UK elections and contests in which abstention and differential turnout plays a part. But it is a useful way of categorising output. I expected Stronger In’s material to be mainly Acclaim – “Your Life is better in Europe” and Vote Leave to be mainly Attack – “Europe is doing you harm”. In fact both campaigns’ statements are more weighted towards Attack, the attacks mainly being about the other side’s desired position, statements or personalities. An example of this is Stronger In’s release about the Boris Johnson speech which made a “mistake every eighty seconds”.
Finally I looked at language. The language of speeches is almost always more powerful than the simple language of press releases. And those releases with powerful language tended to be those using speech excerpts. There are too many themes to go into here, but I want to focus on patriotism. Patriotism is often heavily used in political campaigning and I would have expected this to mainly feature in Vote Leave communications. During the period studied however, it was Stronger In that was making most use of this message. The clearest example is a release using an extract from a March speech by Andy Burnham in Liverpool. He says:
“I say to everyone – don’t diminish this great country of ours. Don’t let them define how we are seen by the rest of the world…”
“Let’s fight them on the beaches of what it means to be British and reclaim that ground. Let’s be true to what we’ve always stood for and always should…”
With a phrase such as “fight them on the beaches” Burnham and the campaign are making a clear effort to link patriotism and pride in Britain with the Stronger In cause.
So what now?
To succeed, Stronger In needs to get faster, and since 15th April there are signs that is has.
To succeed, Vote Leave needs to harness the patriotism of those likely to support it, and since 15th April there are signs it is doing so.
It is all to play for. And what a fascinating way to study PR and Campaigning initiatives and messages.