David Cameron’s European Union renegotiation and its aftermath, played out on the front pages of the newspapers over the past two months, has opened a rare window into the use of PR in contemporary politics and the modern art of the “permanent campaign”.
Officially, the Government’s ‘In’ campaign began with the dramatic conclusion of David Cameron’s renegotiation at a European Council summit. However, the unofficial communications campaign has been underway for much longer.
From headline-grabbing rhetorical constructs and email bombardments drumming up ‘grassroots support’, to the classic campaigning tactic of co-signed letters to newspapers orchestrated by civil servants, the renegotiation has been a swashbuckling exhibition of political PR.
Early in the renegotiation, Andrew Lansley let slip that David Cameron planned to stage a theatrical “bang-the-table row” with Brussels, creating the illusion of conflict to give the resulting compromise the veneer of a victory. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite may have given the game away when she described the drama of the renegotiation as a “face-saving and face-lifting exercise.” Subsequently a secret letter was leaked which had been circulated to Tory activists inviting them to publicly applaud David Cameron’s successful renegotiation-before it had officially been concluded. Welcome to the era of news that has been ‘made earlier’.
David Cameron then cleverly hailed his deal with the headline-grabbing proclamation that it meant Britain can have “the best of both worlds”, a clever piece of spin designed to win over anti-EU voters by suggesting that his renegotiation meant they could now have their Brexit cake, and eat it too.
The Government’s post-negotiation PR machine then roared into action. It began with the classic technique of ‘astroturfing’- covertly mobilising support for a cause to give the impression of a spontaneous wellspring of public sentiment. Downing Street was revealed to have orchestrated co-signed letters from FTSE 100 bosses and former military chiefs supporting EU membership; however, the tactic backfired when two-thirds of Britain’s biggest companies refused to sign their letter, while one former military leader said he was pressured into signing it and another complained that “This subject if far too important for us to be dictated to by an over ambitious junior spin doctor.”
PRs are often described as ‘discourse technologists’ engaged in an effort to shape the widely-understood meaning of words; the success of a PR campaign is evident when its favoured meaning becomes common currency and enters widespread circulation, framing the terms of public debate. This was perfectly exemplified by the linguistic tussle between the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaign over the meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’.
The Out campaign argues that the EU takes away Parliament’s “sovereignty” over British laws, borders and taxes. The Prime Minister responded not by contesting the claim, but by re-defining the word “sovereignty” to mean a state’s “influence”, rather than its ability to govern itself. This cleverly transformed the ‘sovereignty debate’ from an argument about democracy-or the ability to govern ourselves-into a debate over international influence, shifting the discussion onto more favourable territory for the In campaign.
The recent campaign has been a classic exercise in political PR, but the challenge for the Government is even greater now. With much of the Conservative Party and even some of the Cabinet openly opposing their own leader, the coming PR campaign will require a political juggling act, balancing the management of internal and external audiences.
Whichever side you take, the referendum campaign will be fascinating to watch. And you can be sure the outcome will owe more than a little to the ‘discourse technologists’, ever busy behind the headlines.
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