If you’re explaining you MAY lose but if you can’t explain you’ve lost – May caught out on reliance on catchy slogans
However much of a surprise and concern the UK’s decision to leave the EU was when the result of the Brexit referendum came through in the early hours of 24th June 2016, the fact that Friday’s “B-day” came and went without concluding the UK’s future relationship with the EU has created a crisis none of us could ever have anticipated. The inability to effectively deal with the issues arising from triggering Article 50 without a clear pathway to Europe’s exit lounge is as much a communications failure as a political one as in the intervening period the over-reliance on meaningless campaign one liners lacking in any substance has been exposed.
There are many to choose from including “Take back control” and “Brexit means Brexit” (which was later doubled down with, “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it”). But perhaps of all of them, the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s, “We want a red, white and blue Brexit” relatively early after the triggering of Article 50 was, in hindsight, a harbinger of the chaos that was to ensue arising from lack of a credible position or solution on the part of the British political establishment.
It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This is a nod to the need for catchy slogans to win voters over but with an in-built implied understanding that there is substance there to back it up. Instead of such substance and consistency from individual and party political positions in the UK we have, instead, been met with a barrage of comments that vacillate like mercury on a non-stick pan which, rather than providing clarity, have left observers increasingly confused and bewildered. While effective in one sense, winning hearts and minds to their cause initially, these meaningless slogans have only ever been a stopgap measure. What is more damaging though is that the illusory promises perpetuated by politicians in full knowledge of the vacuous nature of those meaningless utterances has created a frustration among an electorate that has evolved to facilitating a divisiveness not seen in Britain for generations.
More worrying though is that as stakes got higher moving towards 29th March, at a time when clarity was needed more than ever, things became even more confusing. Indeed, the scale of inconsistency was exposed very clearly in recent days when the Channel 4 news anchor, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, introduced Conservative Party MP Ben Bradley for an interview by referring him to him as an MP who voted to remain, then became a Brexiteer, then voted against the deal, then said he’d struggle to back the deal again, but finally agreed to back May’s deal and asking how he could change his mind but the electorate shouldn’t in the context of a second referendum.
Fans of Aaron Sorkin’s US political drama, The West Wing, may well remember the presidential debate for President Jeb Bartlett’s re-election in which his opponent delivers a vote-winning ten word clarion call. Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, responds by pointing out the power of catchy ten word answers in political debates with a further challenge to his opponent to give him the next ten words to back the rhetoric up.
Good communications professionals focus as much on the next ten words, and the ten after that as much as the initial slogan itself to ensure the integrity of slogans and key messages can be preserved under scrutiny.
In politics and PR there is an adage – if you’re explaining your losing – but it is clear for all to see that whatever challenge that may bring if you can’t explain – as in the case of Theresa May on Brexit – you’ve lost.
Niall Quinn is Deputy Managing Director and Head of Corporate and Financial PR at The Reputations Agency