Who is leading the EU campaign battle so far?

EU flags in front of European Commission

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.

EU Referendum Campaign – Should we stay or should we go?

If there’s one book you’ll find on most politicians’ bookshelves it’s Drew Westen’s The Political Brain.  This 2007 work said that facts and logical arguments are not enough in political communication.  Even those who are hyper-logical make emotion-based decisions.  And if politicians or campaigns speak to feelings, they are more likely to succeed.  Think back to Gordon Brown’s often statistic-laden statements and contrast with Tony Blair’s emotional, but often fact-free passages.  It’s clear which cut through to the audience.

With this in mind I have looked at  communications by both sides in the debate around Europe.  Should we stay or should we go?    This is an area of contested fact and we’ve already seen a blizzard of arguments. But as the referendum date (23 June) is now known, it’s useful to see how both sides’ comms are shaping up.

There is more than one group on each side.   The Electoral Commission will make two of these “official” shortly. But we don’t need to look at every single campaign group to get a sense of what strategies are being pursued

Britain Stronger in Europe looks set to be the official Remain group.  BSE (slightly unfortunate choice of initials) has already attracted an impressive list of supporters.  Field operations (that’s handing out leaflets and knocking on doors to you and me) have started.  But the front window currently is the website.  So what sense of communication and messaging does this give us?

The first thing that sprung to mind when I looked at www.strongerin.org was British Airways!  It feels very corporate (unlike my sense of what an active campaign normally looks like). The slogan, that Britain will be Stronger, Safer and Better Off, if we stay in Europe, is prominent and repeated.  Front page material included (on Sunday 21st Feb) two “self-interest” type messages and two attacks on, or challenges to, the opposing camp.  A sign-up form for potential supporters is given much space.

Some key components of active campaigning are missing here.  As of 12 noon on Sunday 21st, the website was reporting that the organisation hoped “to see the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package shortly”. Now I know that this is from a press release issued a few days earlier but given that David Cameron’s announcement came on the Friday night, the lack of a speedy update or editing job should concern campaign managers.

The attack material consists of a challenge to the other side to spell out the likely outcomes if Britain withdraws from the EU and an “aha we got you” type release reporting statements by prominent Brexit supporters.  This second piece focuses on whether Britain would be able to take part in the single market post-withdrawal.  It’s not a bad subject. In fact it’s a very good and key subject.  But here it’s presented in an overly technical way in which the main message is somewhat lost. (I was itching to rewrite this!)

As a reader, I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by the messages on this site.  It felt very safe, almost uncommitted in parts.  Someone already supporting the Remain message would find helpful material, but a neutral reader would, I suspect, stay neutral.

On the Brexit side we have Vote Leave and this campaign was quicker to react to the Cameron announcement. In fact its press release is timed 10.01 pm on 20 Feb which is a whole minute or so after David Cameron’s announcement started!   Leave also had the Michael Gove announcement lined up so was able to post a lot more news more quickly over the weekend. (Surprisingly, the Boris Johnson announcement does not appear on the Leave front page or news section as of 22 February. This may be because he has yet to formally contact the campaign, or because of agreements with the Daily Telegraph, for whom Boris writes a column).

The first thing anyone visiting the  Leave website sees is a sum of money, increasing  roughly  once a second, which is described as  the UK’s total contributions to the EU.  We don’t know the start point for this sum, but that niggle aside it is a very clear piece of communication. And is of course to be expected from a campaign run by a former head of the Tax Payers Alliance.

It’s not just money though.  Frankly a message that is only about money won’t cut through to emotions.   A short video about British ”heroes” is clearly designed to reinforce pride in a distinct, shared identity.  Winston Churchill’s appearance was 100 percent expected, but we also see Emmeline Pankhurst and Alan Turing among the personalities featured.   It’s tempting to argue about inclusions or exclusions from material like this, but the existence of this video is significant for the messages this campaign clearly wants to communicate.

Website names, the actual words that will appear on a url, can be key evidence of the core of a campaign’s message.  Vote Leave’s name is not Vote Leave (which after all is about rejecting something) but Voteleavetakecontrol (a much stronger piece of messaging).  How many of us, given the chance to take control rather than be told what to do, would turn that down?

Vote Leave’s website, like Stronger In, doesn’t feel like an active campaigning website yet either.  Both however are e mailing supporters and asking for activity on social media.

I’ll be looking at the communications by both sides over the next few weeks.  I’m interested in how the tone and content changes.  And I’ll be using Benoit’s Functional Theory of Political Communication to do some analysis.

June 23rd will be a key date for our country.  I hope the communications will help us all become engaged in the decision and cast our vote in an informed and committed way.

 

This post was originally published on the CIPR’s Influence website.