I have the honour of writing the first post-Brexit blog for Proof. I couldn’t really write it about anything else; I would look fairly out of touch. But where on earth to begin. From Friday onwards, the UK political scene became a smorgasbord of The Thick of It, Game of Thrones and House of Cards in a period that politicos will analyse for decades. But the responsibilities of the Proof blog mean that I don’t have that kind of generous timescale to analyse, dissect and report, so I’m going to focus on what I deem to be an overwhelming takeout from this whole debacle: do not, under any circumstances, lie.
The sheer ubiquity of claims and counter claims, followed by falsehoods backed up by farce, meant that no one had any real idea what they were voting for outside of their own gut feel. That’s not to say that gut feel isn’t a bad thing, but that wasn’t what the campaigns aimed for. Each side aimed for “facts”, designed to remove any emotional connections with Europe from the equation and to drive a sane, reasonable debate. Did that happen? Of course not. Instead, we got an episode of Brass Eye: “NIGEL FARAGE AND BOB GELDOF FISHING FLOTILLA CLASH”.
The outcome has shown that both campaigns were economical with the truth, and that’s being generous. George Osborne warned of a Brexit budget to plug a £30bn “black hole” if the UK opted out of the EU. Once the vote was in, he retreated from that statement, saying the UK would tackle their new standing “from a position of strength”. The infamous Brexit Battle Bus, emblazoned with a pledge to give the £350m-a-week we give to the EU (a number shown to be false) to the NHS, was backtracked on as soon as the result was in.
We began the campaign with a population not best pleased with our politicians. And we’ve ended it in no better state; one could argue it has got far, far worse. This lesson should be taken on board by all in the communication and campaigning industries. Don’t. Lie. The short term gains from misconstruing evidence are never worth it. We are seeing that already with both Leave and Remain campaigners. While leave may have won, Boris Johnson has already knocked his bid for PM on the head. Jeremy Corbyn is facing a revolt from his own party, driven in part by an alleged poor showing for the Remain camp that may not have veiled his EU scepticism.
Successful organisations are built on truth and evidence-based achievements; something Proof’s founders put at the heart of our business and our brand. But there is evidence out there to suggest others in the industry don’t share the sentiment, and therefore its reputation is not as strong as its burgeoning head count suggests. This was hit home to me by a talk given by Robert Peston in 2014, the BBC Economics Editor at the time. What was his take on PRs?
“If they are not paid to bullshit, to present their clients in the best possible light, what are they being paid to do?”
This is just one quote from a fairly scathing look at the media world as it stands. Regardless of whether you agree with this, it’s the opinion of one of the most high profile journalists in the country and so must be taken on board (the response from the Director General of the PRCA, I think, says volumes).
The communications industry has a responsibility to represents those it works for truthfully. If it doesn’t, it will harm it in the long run. I have been treated with not just scepticism but rudeness and hostility by journalists at national papers because I’m a PR and they see me as a problem. That situation, as far as I can tell, is not going to improve any time soon.
Being untruthful has eroded trust in politicians to the point where no one believes them anymore. PR’s aren’t trusted by journalists because the industry has been known to cover up information or divert attention. Even the media is starting to come under fire for its relationships with PRs and marketers.
How am I going to do my job in the long run if no one trusts me? And if no one trusts the media, why will people want their companies talked about by them? It’s a downward cycle that we need to stop. Communications can be a huge force for good. Work from Proof just in the last few weeks has showcased intelligent prosthetics for those who have lost a limb and raised awareness around poor access to online services for rural communities. We wouldn’t be able to do this if we weren’t believed. This is what the referendum should teach us. Communications strategists, PRs, marketers, all of us – be truthful. It’ll pay in the long run.