SENSO Communications | 2016 June
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June 2016

What’s in it for me? – The most important question in the referendum campaign

The referendum campaign demonstrates the importance of understanding the needs of your audience, writes Steve Harman, Director of SENSO Communications

We love a good election campaign at SENSO Communications. As passionate believers in the value of live debate – where the audience can hear the arguments in person and participate directly — we’ve been attending every EU referendum event we can.

They tend to follow a similar template. At the start, everyone is asked to hold up either a green card for ‘In’ or a red one for ‘Out’. The idea is to see if the balance of opinion shifts after the panellists have slugged it out. Invariably, no minds are changed – there’s always a majority of green cards both before and after the discussion. That’s because the kind of people who go to these things, particularly in London, tend to be middle class, university-educated professionals – exactly the demographic most likely to vote Yes.

The reality is that such events, enjoyable as they are, will have little or no impact on the result of the referendum. The real battle is being fought in the media (‘the air campaign’ as lovers of dramatic military metaphors like to call it) and on doorsteps (‘the ground campaign’).

The main weapon being deployed by both sides is the statistic. Many of these can be categorised as ‘extremely big number’ statistics, like “Being in the EU is worth £91 billion to our economy” or on the other side “We hand over more than £350 million a week to the EU.”

But the other, and more important, kind of figure is the one that speaks to you, the individual voter, directly. Initially it seemed that the Remain campaign was doing a far better job of generating these. The claim that dominated the early stages of the debate was that a vote for Brexit would leave every household £4,300 worse off. Not only that, they said, but the value of our homes would go down, we’d pay a fortune to use our mobiles abroad, and the football teams we support would lose their best players.

But more recently, the ‘Out’ side has been gaining traction with its own versions of these ‘what it means for you’ stories. Immigration is criticised because of the effect it has “on ordinary people.” Boris Johnson has told Sun readers that leaving the EU would scrap £60 of VAT on their fuel bills. Another claim is that European judges are forcing the UK to make huge tax refunds to multinationals – to the tune of £270.43 per household. Arguably the recent boost to the Brexiteers’ polling fortunes reflects the fact that they’ve started doing a better job of deploying these “in your pocket” figures.

Because no matter how spurious or impossible to verify these factoids are, they’re extremely effective. Recent research found that ‘Remain’ had a 19% lead in the polls if voters were told they’d be £500 better off staying in. If they were told their incomes would be unaffected the Out campaign led by 9%. That’s a staggering insight into what motivates voters. For a very large number of people, this referendum isn’t a battle of ideas or a contest for the future of British sovereignty – it’s a question of which outcome is most likely to hit them in the pocket.

That’s entirely understandable in the current economic climate. But it also says something about the UK’s pragmatic democratic culture – we’re less likely to respond to grand sweeping arguments about visions of the country’s future than we are to changes that affect us in ways we can notice – however small.

There’s a lesson here for communications professionals as well as politicians: know who you want to reach and what they care about. Whether they’re journalists, consumers, or businesses, give them information that’s interesting and meaningful to them. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many PR practitioners don’t seem to get it, producing press releases full of dull information about the client, but nothing that matters to the target audience.

Ultimately, the referendum campaign will be won by whichever side does a better job of cutting through to what’s important to voters. One of the most valuable things any communicator can do is put themselves in the shoes of the audience and ask ‘What’s in it for me?’