City Road Communications

PR and Comms in the EU Referendum: Who got it right, who didn’t?


This morning Britain awoke to the momentous news that the country is to leave the European Union (EU). This was followed swiftly by the Prime Minister’s resignation as the UK’s political landscape changed irrevocably.

In his speech announcing that he was to step down, David Cameron described the EU referendum the biggest “democratic exercise” in our history. Yesterday, 72.2% of UK adults headed to the polling stations, with the Leave campaign pipping Remain to the post with 51.9% of the votes. The narrow margin comes as little surprise, with opinion polls unable to separate the two sides during the four months leading up to the opening of the ballots.

With events of such magnitude – and in the case of the referendum, one we will likely not see again in this lifetime – the communication strategy implemented by all parties has provided fascinating viewing. The campaigning by both the Remain and Leave camps was, as expected, fiercely competitive, with significant budgets from both sides in invested PR, advertising and relentless canvassing. City Road Comms has been keeping a close eye on current affairs to see whose PR strategy is on point, and who is sticking the proverbial foot in their mouth.

This morning served up a fantastic example; as people sat down to try to absorb the news – not to mention a strong Friday morning coffee – both Nigel Farage and David Cameron positioned themselves in front of the television cameras. The UKIP leader was speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, while Cameron was falling on his sword outside 10 Downing Street.

Just hours after learning his fate, Cameron delivered an emotive yet composed seven-minute speech in which he was graceful in defeat and implored much-needed calm and stability in the coming months. Addressing potential fears that may arise amongst a diverse nation of viewers, Cameron poignantly acknowledged the need for a “new captain” to drive the nation forward. While we can assume that contingency speeches had been prepared for a loss, it was still an excellent piece of reactive PR, possessing genuine sentiments of sadness delivered in relatively raw manner. As with any national address, Cameron ensured a human approach was central to his delivery, this being the central most important factor when delivering a speech of this importance.

Meanwhile, Farage, in his own inimitable style, made one of the biggest PR blunders of recent memory. The outspoken politician was asked if the Leave campaign was going to follow-up on its heavily advertised pledge of investing the £350 million sent to the EU every week into the NHS instead. Farage’s forthright response was that he can’t guarantee that will be the case, before then stating that it was a mistake for this promise to even be part of the argument to exit the EU. This all came just hours after his 4am victory speech in which Farage claimed that “honesty and decency” had won out in the referendum.

In the aftermath of what was an outstanding victory for the Brexit camp, Farage tread a thin line in reverse-engineering their success, a veritable “what not to say when managing one’s own political PR campaign”. Reacting quickly to breaking news is an integral part of any successful PR strategy; it enables an individual or organisation to position itself on the frontline, as an expert in its field, asserting a point of view that over time will cement your perspective in this space. However, doing so opens up the risk of failing to get the right message across, or worse yet, saying or writing something that is completely at odds with ‘the party line’.

For politicians, trade groups and financial bodies, the challenge in the immediate future will be to instil calm across the nation, which will involve presenting a coherent and united message for people to buy into. Dramatic change will inevitably cause an element of panic, and Cameron’s resignation speech clearly attempted to address this issue. As did the statement made by Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, which was made amidst news that the FTSE had opened down almost 9% – equating to £180 billion being wiped off the value of the UK’s top companies – while the pound had dropped to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. Carney assured people that the “Bank of England has put in place extensive contingency plans” so that Britain can deal with the short-term fall-out from Brexit, adding that the measures already implemented will “support orderly market functioning” in the face of the anticipated financial volatility.

These words must now be backed up by clear demonstrations that action is being taken – doing so will require a clear, strong and intelligent PR and comms strategy. This becomes particularly pertinent as the Conservative Party will see its focus divided between electing a new leader and reacting to the fact that the EU will shortly invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would give the UK two years for the negotiation of its withdrawal. In matters of such huge importance – both before and now after the EU referendum – getting PR right is vital; with the stakes so high, it can be catastrophic not to.