Third-party endorsement didn't keep us in the EU - but it might still work for you

What can campaigners learn from the Brexit referendum battle, where the 'remain' camp got it so very wrong?

What others say about you is more important than what you say yourself, says James Bethell
What others say about you is more important than what you say yourself, says James Bethell

Both sides in the EU referendum debate recognised that the influence of politicians is tainted by the well-documented corrosion of public trust and decline in hierarchy. They pinned their hopes on the age-old principle that what other people say about you is more important than what you say yourself.

Both campaign strategies relied on the support of trusted personalities and experts who could cut through public apathy.

Matthew Elliott started this approach at the Business for Britain campaign (a precursor of the ‘leave’ campaign), applying lessons on counter-insurgency comms developed by The TaxPayers’ Alliance. But it was Will Straw for the Britain Stron­ger In Europe campaign who embraced the principle, with dozens of establishment support groups such as oncologists, 300 historians and Professor Stephen Hawking taking a central role.

Third-party advocacy, a common tactic in US elections, was set to play a bigger role in a British election than ever before. At both HQs, campaign workers organised ring-rounds, end­orsements and group photos. Influential supporters hosted recruitment dinners. Digital advertising teams sent voters targeted messages featuring advocates on Facebook and Twitter.

From ‘World Leaders for Remain’ to ‘Bikers for Brexit’, the groups were varied and bizarre. For three months it felt like newspapers were filled with little else.

The effects were varied. President Obama’s powerful intervention received blanket coverage, but did not trouble the polls. Business voices for ‘leave’ like JCB’s Lord Bamford and Sir James Dyson were energetic, but overwhelmed. Many int­erventions were counterproductive. The endorsement of Goldman Sachs’ CEO at Davos in January struck a false note, and became cited as typical of an approach featuring too many self-interested elites that were irrelevant to swing voters.

The endorsement arms race led to some battered reputations. Voters became exhausted with confusing, contradictory voices.

The legacy is unclear.

‘Remain’ put more hope in third-party mobilisation and lost, whereas ‘leave’ switched from advocates to a more disciplined strategy around the slogan ‘take control’, and won.

For all the efforts by ‘remain’ to inspire a new generation of voters, young people failed to turn up to the polls, while older voters, typically more influenced by right-wing newspapers than celebrities on Twitter, swung the election.

Despite these disappointments, there remains something valuable for business leaders in the principle that what others say about you is more important than what you say yourself.

Third-party advocacy should be part of the modern corporate comms armoury because it can be an effective tool.

But comms professionals should remember three golden rules. Counter-intuitive voices are more impactful than the usual suspects. The best endorsements are spontaneous, so some trust is needed. And trusted partnerships take years to develop and cannot be quickly recruited for a photo-shoot.

James Bethell is director of Westbourne Communications

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