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What Brexit and Trump can teach us about PR and communications

Two huge political stories dominate the news agenda on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time – Brexit and the US election. Both stories are connected by a common mood – a large proportion of the population in both the UK and the US are feeling disenfranchised and neglected by their governments.

This is the context in which the UK government failed to get enough people to vote in favour of remaining in the European Union. It is also the context in which Donald Trump has been elevated to becoming president of the United States.

I am fascinated with these two stories and the environment that has allowed them to happen. Mainly because of the PR and communication insights that both offer.

Calls for change always have an early advantage

The Leave campaigners in the EU Referendum had the advantage of simply calling for change. In any walk of life, it is easy to hit a nerve by finding fault with things. Tell unemployed people they are out of work because of immigration, and they are likely to agree.

Tell sick people waiting for operations that the NHS is under-funded because we give billions to Europe, and they will be angry.

Instilling anger in people is easy. This is the same emotive advantage that helped propel Donald Trump into and through the presidential race.

All you need to do is hit a negative nerve to encourage people to listen to you. Another advantage held by this side of a campaign is that you don’t need to offer any solutions. All you need to do is put yourself up as an alternative to the establishment.

Make people want change and tell them no one is campaigning for it but you, and you will find support.

Communication lesson 1: desire for change beats no change

For anyone in marketing looking to gain support for a message, this is an important first lesson. If you think back through the Mad Men era of marketing, most advertising played on the same emotion.

Tell everyone there is a problem (grey hair, obesity, greasy skin, big nose) and then make them want to fix it. The difference between advertising and politics is that, in advertising, the solution is usually obvious in the product. With politics, the solution is assumed, because there is a champion (the product).

Take antibacterial soap, for example. It works no better than normal soap, really, but a series of health scares has allowed advertisers to prey on our fear of infection, and push the idea that antibacterial soap is the answer. It isn’t.

If you are on the side of ‘no change’ and you need to convince people to stick with you, you need to work doubly hard to gain support.

The UK Government should have communicated better about Brexit

The Leave campaigners had a lot of soundbites to play with in the EU Referendum. They told the population that the EU was taking billions of pounds that could fund the NHS; they told us that immigrants were pouring in unchecked; they told us that Britain had no sovereignty over its own laws. Boris Johnson championed the phrase “take back control” without ever qualifying it, or acknowledging that Britain is already has control and sovereignty.

In order to combat these claims, the Remain camp needed a strong PR and communications strategy that should have included facts and slogans. It came up with almost nothing.

Communication lesson 2: explain the rules properly

The day after the EU Referendum result was announced, many people believed we were no longer in Europe – a claim stated on TV by Nigel Farage, who called it “independence day”.

Many immigrants were told by ordinary citizens, some threatened physically, that they now had to pack up and leave.

The Government could have predicted, and avoided, such civil unrest if it had clearly communicated what a referendum actually means.

Millions who voted to leave are now angered to find that the referendum is no more than an opinion poll and that the British political and legal system still has a democratic and constitutional process to follow.

Communication lesson 3: announce the plans up front

As we have seen since David Cameron resigned and Theresa May became prime minister, the government has no solid Brexit plan. Perhaps they were so confident of winning the referendum that they didn’t prepare an alternative.

If the government had created an early indication of what type of exit plan we would follow, and what would happen to international trade deals, the currency, the economy etc, people would have been better informed of the outcome. Perhaps they would have voted differently.

The Donald Trump guide to media management

I read somewhere that, on page 58 of Donald Trump’s The Art Of The Deal, Trump gives this insight into his approach to PR.

“I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”

Say what you like about the man, he is a master of using hyperbole to get results. In his speeches, many of which are ad-libbed, he demonstrates two key tenets of the soundbite spin that wins people over.

Communication lesson 4: pick a bad adjective and stick to it

Anyone who reads The Sun newspaper (no thank you) will be used to the way that newspaper describes people using some throwaway adjective. ‘Fatcat Sir Philip Green’, ‘Grumpy Andy Murray’, ‘Hero Andy Murray’ – a supposedly impartial newspaper colours its stories by using tone-setting adjectives, which direct the reader’s view of the story.

Donald Trump does this by using the word ‘crooked’ each time he names Hillary Clinton. Despite being a previous political donor to the Clintons and, in several interviews, saying he is great friends with Hillary, describing her as a “very nice person”, his mantra during the presidential campaign is to call her “crooked Hillary Clinton”.

It is simple and it is clever. He has fed his followers with easily repeatable soundbites, such as “lock her up”, which have become marketing slogans, resonating with the masses and giving them something to keep repeating.

His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has successfully promoted the term “presidential” in interviews. Trump himself made a jokey speech about what it means to be presidential. This helped feed the concept of being presidential over being a good president. I heard Trump followers, when interviewed during the campaign, comment on this – it doesn’t matter if he has done bad things, because he appears to be ‘presidential’ on stage.

Communication lesson 5: go to extremes with your hyperbole

Most people knew that Trump was exaggerating in his public speeches and most people knew that he wasn’t giving much substance, but his tactic was also successful. He achieved a much larger share of media visibility during the presidential race than did Hillary Clinton.

He has been accused of being a misogynist, racist, narcissistic person who is likely to create more civil unrest inside the country and more terrorism outside it, while Hillary’s biggest crime appears to be that she used a private server to send some emails. Yet Trump won the media battle and was unphased by the criticisms.

It is his policy of wild exaggeration and hyperbole that helped him do that.

It is astounding to witness.

Some examples of Trumperbole

“We’re gonna win so much. We’re gonna win at every level. We’re gonna win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare for all veterans. We’re gonna win with every single facet. We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning.”

“I’ll be the greatest the God ever created. Believe me, I’ll be great.”

“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created, I tell you that.”

“I will be the best thing that ever happened to women.”

“I’m gonna do great with the African Americans. I think I’m gonna do great with the hispanics. I think I’m gonna do great with the Asians.”

In presidential debates, Trump used extreme words to colour his statements, without ever justifying his claims. He describes things as a “disaster” or a “total disgrace”. Delivered with the tone of an angry voter, it’s easy to see why he has won fans.

Even when he claimed to be smart for avoiding taxes, and when he accused all Mexican immigrants of being rapists or criminals, he refused to let any criticism stick. When he is in a corner, he uses misdirection. He claims the election is rigged when it looks like he will lose; then claims polls are valid only when they show him gaining.

The PR and communication lessons from Brexit and Trump

Anyone working in PR and communications can learn from the political events of this year. With the Leave campaign in the UK and the Trump presidential campaign, there is a lot we can learn.

  • If you are trying to make sure people vote against change, give them a reason – facts, information, what will change bring? You need to work a lot harder than those trying to bring about change.
  • Use headline-worthy slogans. Even if they are not factually true. “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead” was a clever slogan. Factually, it was misleading, but it was not a complete lie and it was effective. “Build a wall”, “Lock her up”, “crooked Hillary” are hugely effective statements. The best slogan the Clinton camp engineered was “trumped up trickle down economics” – nowhere near as effective.
  • Use hyperbole and memorable phrases. A common tactic in press releases is to describe something as the first of its kind, the best, the number one… Remember the slogan, “The world’s favourite airline”?

  • Tap into what stirs emotions. I hate to say it’s a good idea to tap into people’s fears in order to sell something, but that is essentially what most marketing is about. Identify what’s missing in people’s lives, highlight that, and then encourage them to want the solution. Even if you don’t give them the solution.
  • Use the right images – what US politicians call ‘optics’. When Donald Trump invited Nigel Farage to speak on his stage, he was able to give hope to his supporters. The implication was clear. If the Brexit campaigners can win in the UK, the Trump voters can win in the USA.
  • When things don’t look like they are going your way, use misdirection by creating a new story that puts someone else in the spotlight.

Actor Bryan Cranston summed up the Trumperbole phenomenon recently in an interview.

“I’m fascinated by Trump because he is a classic tragic Shakespearean character. He talks about issues and problems and if you listen to that, you would think that everything is horrible. He also doesn’t present any solutions. ‘I’m just gonna make it great. It’ll be great again, I can guarantee it. We’re gonna work great deals, it’s gonna be fantastic, everything’s gonna be huge. It’s gonna be great. Great. Great. Great. Problem. Problem. Problem. Great. Great. Great.’ And he’s saying nothing. He has no ideas. He’s remarkable. That’s why he’s so Shakespearean – he’s unlike anyone we’ve ever seen in that realm.”

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