CLEARING THE PR POLLUTION
By Guest • Thursday, June 30, 2016 – 10:49
The Remain campaign was an object case in bad communications, one from which there is much to learn, argues George Marshall, director of projects at Climate Outreach, a charity working to increase public understanding and awareness of climate change.
The tragedy for the Remain campaigners is that the principles of good engagement were already well known, not least from the field of climate change communications.
Facts alone are not enough to win the argument
As is so often the case with climate change communications, many Remain campaigners often failed to understand the way that people form their opinions.
A key mistake of the Remain campaign was the assumption that the EU debate could be settled by statistical models and elite expert opinion. The materials from the Remain campaign were overwhelmingly dependent on dry economic statistics and intangible claims from international bodies about economic costs.
When these failed to work, the campaign simply laid it on thicker, hoping that stronger data, more elite experts and fatter reports (the Treasury analysis of the economic impacts of leaving the EU was over 300 pages long) would produce a stronger argument.
In reality, though, facts alone are not enough to shift attitudes. Climate change communicators know this all too well. Despite twenty years of reports, documentaries, and increasingly outspoken expert warnings, the public has never fully accepted the scale of the scientific consensus on climate change. In recent polls, 37% of people in Britain say that “climate change has not been proven by scientists” and around 60% of people maintain that it is partly or entirely due to natural processes.
Relying on expert opinion to build public engagement can sometimes backfire
The Leave campaign made effective use of anti-establishment messages which portrayed the experts and elites as a self-serving group who do not understand the concerns of ordinary people. This approach has also been used to promote climate scepticism.
There are many common features between climate sceptics and Leave supporters. In polls, supporters of Leave were twice as likely to disbelieve climate change than supporters of Remain. They also share a common demographic, being disproportionately older, male, conservative, and white.
Climate change scepticism was the dry run for Brexit which tested and refined language that enabled Leave to speak to broader values and identity.
Tell a good story
The exact extent to which a change of wording can shape how people feel and act towards an issue remains the subject of intense debate. Nonetheless, it is beyond doubt that in the world of politics, language matters.
Individual words can operate as powerful frames that embody complex meanings. The Leave campaign established a single word, ‘control’, as the dominant frame in the referendum and mobilised people around the slogan, emblazoned on posters and the battle-bus of “Let’s Take Back Control”.
Identify messages of hope
The discussion of future impacts in the referendum shows clear parallels with climate change, an issue where, like the Remain campaign, communicators hope that people can be motivated to act in anticipation of predicted future disaster.
In the case of climate communications there is strong evidence that messages dependent on anticipatory fear are often rejected. Those disposed to believe them may actively ignore them in order to defend themselves against anxiety. People who are more sceptical see them as fear mongering, just as Brexit campaigners dubbed the Remain campaign “Project Fear”.
Remain failed to create any positive vision. There are many positive reasons for staying within the EU, and Remain could have constructed appealing narratives around the frames of choice, freedom of movement, diversity, opportunity, solidarity and fairness.
What can we learn from the EU referendum campaign?
The first lesson confirms that effective communication creates narratives around people’s values and identity. In particular, as Climate Outreach has always argued, political change requires mobilising support across boundaries of class and politics. Top down information-driven media cannot compete with personal contact and peer-to-peer communication.
A second lesson re-iterates the importance of peer-to-peer communications for complex technical issues. Although it had the usual panoply of media outreach tools, the ultimate success of the Leave campaign was down to its ability to organise a mass movement that reached deep into neighbourhoods and communities and could initiate conversations.
A third lesson is that public silence around an issue can be broken by effective communication focused around a ‘moment’. The Leave campaign generated a political moment of debate and attention around an issue that had previously been of little public interest.
Like climate campaigners, advocates for leaving the EU have always struggled to overcome public apathy and indifference. In a poll taken just two months before the referendum, scarcely 15 percent of people rated “Europe” as a major issue facing the country. The referendum broke this silence and made EU membership a salient issue, around which people were required to have a position.
Climate change is another long term issue that struggles to demand public attention or political priority. Forcing a debate is always a high risk strategy but maybe we require a similar moment of broad-based public scrutiny to break the climate silence and obtain the mandate for a truly effective response to climate change.
A version of this article was originally posted on Climate Outreach.