PR industry should not fear Brexit, says Vote Leave comms chief

Pro-Brexit campaigners must prioritise economic over immigration arguments, says Paul Stephenson (pictured), comms director of Vote Leave - one of the main groups backing the UK's withdrawal from the EU. He talks to John Harrington about UKIP, Boris Johnson, the BBC - and why the PR industry should not be fearful

PR industry should not fear Brexit, says Vote Leave comms chief

What is the most crucial message your campaign is trying to put across, and what distinguishes you from the other pro-Brexit campaigns?

The UKIP-led Grassroots Out argues that immigration is one of the biggest concerns for the British people; therefore, if we talk about immigration a lot, we will win. At Vote Leave we have done a lot of market research. There are a lot of strong arguments for leaving the EU that resonate with people. But the thing that trumps it all is the argument that the other side are making, which is you could lose your job on 24 June, so vote to stay in. If that’s what people think is going to happen, we will lose. That’s why we have worked so hard to build up this regional network of businesses, making the economic argument... [about] how we can thrive outside the EU. The other thing that we think is the strongest argument our side has, put very simply, is let’s spend UK money on UK priorities.

Has it been a reactive policy to use the business and economic argument and, more generally, to what extent is your approach proactive rather than reactive?

I think we’re proactive. With all campaigns there is an element of reactivity and proactivity. I don’t think we have been reactive on the business front; we’ve been actively recruiting businesses for a few years. The reality is that a lot of people had been waiting to see what the Prime Minister came back with [after the EU summit in February] or they haven’t made up their minds. It was more difficult for us to recruit big hitters then – but we will have bigger names coming out before the referendum is done. I think that’s helpful for us because it gives us a momentum towards the end. But it’s easier for the Government to pick up the phone to a bunch of FTSE100 companies and say, "Come on, back us". And there are good reasons for those companies to want to do so – reasons that may be nothing to do with the European Union.

How do you work, if at all, with the other pro-Brexit campaign groups?

We have a contact group where we get together every week just to talk about that week and what’s going on. So there is conversation but there isn’t a huge amount of co-operation because it’s a competitive process [to become the Electoral Commission's designated lead campaign group].

But, after the designation happens, we will work together a little more closely, hopefully. In reality, there are two different camps and two different strategies, and in many ways that suits us reasonably well because the UKIP-centred group can do more on immigration. I think the other side’s issues are going to remain towards the end of the campaigning because they have a fundamental tension between the Tory and Labour sides of the ‘remain’ campaign. Trying to pull together two camps of people who don’t normally get along is not an easy business.

Are you winning the media war against pro-EU campaigners?

I would say we beat them day to day in the papers, partly because some papers seem more favourable to our position, but partly because we are more nimble than government departments. Until recently, I think they’ve been getting the better of us elsewhere because they have had the PM out every day and the cameras are going to go with him. If you combine this with a government white paper and a statement to Parliament and so on, suddenly they are setting the agenda. I was quite relaxed to let momentum go to them for a bit – they hit hard to try to gather momentum to get ahead in the polls, but they didn’t get ahead in the polls. They threw everything at us for three weeks and we withstood it. The key battles are the six o’clock and 10 o’clock news bulletins every night. We do well in the papers, but it’s about translating that onto TV.

Vote Leave’s media operation

  • As Vote Leave comms director, Stephenson reports to campaign director Dominic Cummings.
  • Under Stephenson is head of broadcast Lee Cain; head of media Robert Oxley, who looks after relations with the press, particularly lobby journalists; comms manager Jonathan Suart; and network manager James Starkie, who oversees the regional PR agency network (currently seven-strong). There is also an assistant comms manager and two media monitoring executives.
  • The comms team numbered eight when we spoke (late March), with two people to be added shortly.

The BBC has been accused of having a pro-EU bias. Do you think the broadcaster is fair to your cause?

Every week I send the BBC an update of its coverage and we monitor how much time it has given to both sides and any issue that we have. Generally, it’s been pretty balanced and pretty fair. I think things have changed compared with the debate on the Euro, where you were seen as crazy – you were seen as basically racist – if you opposed the Euro.

Is there a concern that some of the people in favour of leaving the EU are a certain type of person – a typical ‘UKIPer’ – and this may deter some voters?

The interesting thing about this referendum is there’s no ‘reform’ option on the ballot paper – it’s either in or out. So a whole bunch of people who would never have been voting UKIP will vote to leave. We have a much more charged up, enthusiastic base, which is the UKIP people. But we can’t win with just them so we do need to appeal to the centre ground. Both campaigns are chasing after the middle ground and those people broadly subscribe to the view of, "I’ll want to stay in a reformed EU". And they also subscribe to the view of "I don’t like the EU but I’m worried about my job". We need to reassure those people.

Nigel [Farage, UKIP leader] has an important role to play in bringing out the base but he can’t be the leader of the campaign. I think now, when you look at the people who are at the top of our campaign – Gisela Stuart, a German-born Labour MP; Justice Secretary Michael Gove, very thoughtful and credible; Boris Johnson, clearly someone who has a very open world view – these are big, important figures who make people think again. I’ve been amazed by the number of people I’ve spoken to who’ve said, "Well, I wasn’t with you but now I’ve seen Boris Johnson has come on your side, actually, I will be with you". We need to show Britain that there are a lot of people like them who think about leaving the EU.

To what extent is fear a useful and legitimate tactic for a campaign such as yours?

I wouldn’t say what we are doing is about trying to create fear. I think that the ‘remain’ campaign is worried. They thought they would get a big bounce in the polls when they came back and declared victory [after the EU summit]. That didn’t happen, so they immediately stopped talking about reform and instead started talking about the risks of leaving. I think that betrayed a weakness in their position. We will sell a positive vision of a global Britain thriving outside the EU, but we have to be realistic that news is normally negative and that’s because people prefer reading negative news to positive news. But I think the key thing about the campaign is that voters are saying, "I just want to know the facts". There’s a real educational role to be played by the campaigns and by the media more generally.

How do you find working with PR agencies for the campaign?

They have been fantastic. This isn’t an easy subject for regional journalists because it’s generally a national conversation without a huge regional angle on it, necessarily. But having those agencies on the ground with contacts makes it so much easier.

How would you reassure those in the PR industry, particularly agency bosses, who fear Brexit would damage their businesses?

I would tell them not to believe all the scare stories. People said that if we didn’t join the Euro, London would become a second-rate city but it never happened. I think that the issue is that, yes, there could be a degree of uncertainty while we negotiate a new treaty. But we will get a good deal – it’s in everyone’s interests to get a good deal – and I’m very confident that PR agencies wouldn’t suffer from that.

You joined Vote Leave from the British Bankers’ Association. How have you adjusted to the role?

Work-life balance doesn’t really exist anymore but it’s for a short period, so that’s fine. It’s a massive privilege, as someone who works in PR, to work on stories that are on the 10 o’clock news every day. And going out day to day to fight my old mates who work for David Cameron is quite good fun.

How will the public vote on 23 June?

When I took the job, I didn’t think we would win, but I’m getting more confident that we actually can win. I just think the underlying data is moving in our direction – in particular, the likelihood of our people going out to vote and getting other people to vote is much higher than on the other side. As long as we can neutralise the fears of the ‘remain’ campaign then we’ve got a very good chance of winning.

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