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Brexit – Don’t lie


I could talk about the falling pound, credit rating drops, ‘go home’ graffiti on the Polish Centre in London, political turmoil, buyer’s remorse and petitions for a second vote, baby-boomers tipping the balance, people Googling the EU on the morning after – after! – the vote and the potential break-up of the UK, to say nothing of the EU’s future.

But I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to bring it back to communications. And why lying doesn’t work.

The Leave campaign had two key messages. The first was that the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels, money that could instead be used to fund the National Health Service. The second was that, by leaving the EU, we would be able to curb immigration.

The £350 million a week message actually unravelled during the campaign, when the (neutral) National Statistics Office made it clear that at least half comes back in grants and so on. But it wasn’t until the morning after the vote that the Leave leaders finally admitted the NHS won’t actually be getting the extra money.

Immigration has long been a dog-whistle and the leavers used it to good effect: ‘these foreigners coming over here and taking our jobs’. What they didn’t articulate, of course, is that people came to the UK because the economy was strong there were plenty of jobs. Becoming a member of the European Economic Area seems the current preferred option, for UK politicians at least, and that will not provide any control over immigration. But it’s alright because people won’t want to come to the UK when there are no jobs. So immigration will in fact reduce. Slow hand-clap.

Now we come to my point.

An important lesson from the Leave campaign is that you have to choose messages that won’t unravel. It is vitally important that what you say about what you’re selling – products, services, a vision of the future – will withstand close scrutiny and will remain valid over time. To achieve that, your start point must be the truth. OK, you can highlight the most compelling bits but what you do say has to be real. There are always consequences if your messaging is sloppy or inaccurate – or simply a lie.

We don’t yet know who will be the next Prime Minister but it could well be Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, who had a quiet referendum. Boris Johnson, who led Leave, could well miss out. And it looks unlikely Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, will get his hands anywhere near the levers of power.

I have no doubt that if they had run a more honest campaign, the Leave leaders would now be in a much stronger position. The short-termism of Leave’s messaging helped them win the battle but perhaps not the war.

Don’t even start me on the football.

Charlie Pryor

Senior Advisor, International Communications, based in London

Charlie is an experienced communications consultant who started Leidar UK in 2010. He is responsible for developing and implementing communications strategies for companies and organisations of all sizes and in many different sectors.

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