Everything we know about everyone being wrong about everything is wrong, and other lessons from the Referendum

Some thoughts on possible lessons for campaigners from Brexit:

 

Facts aren’t the terrain on which to base communications campaigns

Efforts by the Remain camp to rebut the nefarious ‘£350m per week to Brussels’ claim fell on particularly stony ground.

The thing about £350m is that it encapsulated a wider sentiment, illuminating an existing concern. The fact that it wasn’t true wasn’t really the issue. It was the concern that was the thing.

(And saying in response ‘it’s a big number but just not as much as that’ didn’t alleviate or even address that concern.)

Numbers also are not a particularly good way to overcome scepticism. As shown for example in research into attitudes to migration that has identified that:

“participants often spontaneously said they knew few facts about some of the basic questions that most concerned them … However, they also readily admitted that if they were given figures on these questions, they would probably not believe them”.

This experience adds to plenty of existing evidence showing that mythbusting isn’t a way to get communications traction. It’s not a basket to put the eggs in.

 

Numbers express feelings

Big numbers are inherently confusing and elusive. (For all of us, not just those other people.)

Every now and then someone publishes some market research along the lines that ‘everyone is wrong about everything’, resulting in a mix of horror and bemusement.

But some have argued that this ignorance is itself rational response:

“People have no reason to inform themselves, with all the costs of time and effort that involves, if they can’t influence anything”.

And it’s fairly well accepted that what people (think they) know may flow from, and express, their attitudes, rather than their attitudes being formed by the knowledge.

So if someone thinks aid spending is too high, they might over-exaggerate the amount of money that goes to aid. This might mean that strictly speaking their understanding is not totally accurate – but the lack of information isn’t the salient thing.

Campaigns that stress ‘awareness raising’ are likely to fail to address this underlying dynamic.

 

People have motivations and act on them

It should really go without saying that people act for reasons that make sense, to them, in the situation they are in.

So it’s important to understand these motivations. And then not talk past them (as the Remain campaign did with exemplary ineptitude in its other stony-ground communcations strategy of relying on an endless trail of expert input to appeal to an audience massively sceptical about elites and their professed expertise for example).

In any campaign, you have to understand the motivations of the people you are targeting, and be purposeful in addressing those motivations (and not the ones you assume they have, or you think they should have).

 

Watch out for over-confidence when developing and planning a campaign

In committing to a referendum, Cameron thought he’d come up with a great way to outflank the Eurosceptics in his party and defuse UKIP. He doesn’t seem to have considered that it could turn out to be the worst political idea since Caligula made his horse consul.

It’s unlikely that any civil society campaign could have such catastrophic outcomes, but still there can be significant risks to campaigning – and so we should think of this as a cautionary tale.

There is a general tendency in decision making towards over-confidence and reliance on, and extrapolation from, limited information. So we should ideally adopt ways to temper this, for example through

  • Actively seeking diversity of opinion before going ahead (to avoid groupthink type behaviours)
  • Conducting ‘pre-mortems’ during planning – put yourself in the position that you are at the end of your campaign and things have gone wrong: why and what are the implications

 

The endpoint you are aiming for is when things really start

Talking of (not so) clever people, Boris Johnson must have thought he was using his great big brain wisely when he opted to back LEAVE. But it looks like he made the fatal mistake of focusing on the policy victory without thinking beyond it.

It’s hard now to see how things will possibly end well (including – as now seems pretty clear – importantly for him, for him).

This is a classic example – familiar to campaigners – of the importance of looking beyond the policy goal and planning for, and investing in, the implementation phase. (We talk about this in relation to the Arms Trade Treaty campaign in my recent podcast for example.)

 

We’ve got a lot of work to do

It’s been a grim campaign. And it’s difficult to see good outcomes (Scotland possibly excepted). So we’ve got to organise, and be as effective as we can be. And as Tom Baker stresses, we need to look after ourselves and each other too.

 

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