The populist movements that led in the UK to the vote to leave the European Union, and in the US to the election of Donald Trump, have much in common. Together, the factors that drove them create a very challenging comms environment for any organisation communicating with the public.
In the UK, the Brexit vote revealed a society deeply divided – by age, geography and social class. This division is not new – these factors have been dictating voting behaviour for years. What was remarkable about Brexit was how it exposed the extraordinary polarisation of our society: two sides with totally different outlooks, each unable to understand the other.
This polarisation is reinforced by our media landscape. Online news and social media enable us to live in an ‘echo chamber’, meeting only those who share and reinforce our views.
At the heart of the divide sits the unequal impact of globalisation, creating a perception that an ‘out-of-touch elite’ has prospered by ‘fixing the system’ so that it works for the wealthy rather than ordinary people. The expenses scandal in 2009, for example, seemed to confirm what many had long suspected: the elites were in it only for themselves.
It’s a bad situation, but one that becomes particularly toxic if those elites are also demonstrating their own incompetence. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction, business backing Britain joining the euro, and the global financial crisis all shook public faith in expert opinion. The ‘post-truth’ world that followed brought all these elements together. Neither the motives nor the competence of experts could be trusted any longer, so why should we listen to them?
These developments should concern us as communicators for two reasons. Politics is the most visible expression of wider consumer behaviour, so it may only be a matter of time before individuals, as consumers, behave in the same way they do as voters. What’s more, significant threats to reputation will emerge during the Brexit process. Companies will find themselves having to defend their actions to a fiercely partisan media, determined to describe difficult commercial decisions as ‘profiteering’ or ‘unpatriotic’.
As we consider how to respond, we should understand the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns in navigating these trends. What their success shows us is the re-emergence of the fundamentals of campaigning: insight, strategy, messaging and leadership. These campaigns better understood their voters, forced the conversation onto their territory, had a clarity of message and charismatic message carriers. It is these fundamentals we should apply when we consider how to communicate in this new environment.
First, understanding your audience is now more important than ever. Gone are the days when we could assume we knew what consumers were thinking. Customer insight is now a company’s most valuable commodity.
Second, in an environment where resentment and doubts about competence persist, we must earn permission to be heard and show humility and contrition for past mistakes.
Third, we must relearn the basics of rebuttal, but acknowledge the need to learn a new language that uses emotion as much as logic.
Fourth, the most important lesson of the ‘post-truth’ world is the need to dominate the conversation. Rebuttal alone will concede the framing of the argument. That is why strategy is so important. It allows you to seize the frame by having a more compelling story to tell.
Lastly, the perception of Trump was of a campaign in chaos, yet day after day he delivered powerful messaging – "Make America Great Again" – just as in the UK we saw the power of "Take back control". Effective messaging isn’t arrived at by accident, it flows from deep insight, is located in a clear strategy, and is tested to refine and hone its impact.
Lord Livermore is a partner at BritainThinks and a member of the House of Lords
- BritainThinks, the insight and strategy consultancy, in conjunction with PRWeek, is embarking on an innovative project to understand the public's views on pre-Brexit Britain. Click here to find out more.