As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.
Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:
1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.
2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.
On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?
3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.
4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.
The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.
According to a new report, more and more of us are working in digital technology companies. Research led by Tech Nation has found that 1.46 million people (or 7% of the workforce) are employed by more than 47,000 digital companies across the UK – and of these just 250,000 are working in inner London. 74% of digital companies are located outside London.
To put that in perspective, according to other government figures, agriculture employs 535,000 workers, construction 2.2 million and manufacturing 2.6 million. So nearly three times as many people tend computers instead of animals. Heartening stuff, and a welcome antidote to some of the more extreme London-oriented digital stories seen in the media.
The highest density clusters in the report are Brighton & Hove, Inner London, Berkshire (including Reading), Edinburgh and Cambridge, while the highest rates of digital employment are in London, Bristol and Bath, Greater Manchester, Berkshire and Leeds.
It is easy to be cynical about the timing of the government-backed report, with an election coming up fast. I’d also query the definition of ‘digital’ – my PR business makes it in, which seems to show a wide classification range (not that I’m complaining). The headline findings that certain sectors have more digital companies than the national average (Brighton 3.3x, Cambridge 1.5x, for example), is interesting, but needs to be put into context. Brighton employs 7,458 people in digital, out of a population of 155,000 – under 5% compared to other clusters that potentially have a greater proportion of digital workers.
But what is more interesting is how the research reinforces the importance of clusters. Statistics include:
- 77% of respondents have a network of entrepreneurs with whom they share experiences and ideas. This rises to 90% in Cambridge.
- 54% believe their clusters help attract talent (65% in Cambridge).
- 40% believe their cluster gets them access to affordable property (such as science parks or co-working spaces).
- 33% believe their cluster helps attract inward investment
- For Cambridge, access to advice and mentorship was seen as twice as important to growth than nationally (scoring +100%), and the positive perception of the Cambridge brand (+62%), was also a key driver for expansion.
- Issues highlighted in Cambridge include poor transport infrastructure (scoring -111% compared to the UK average) and lack of available property (-31%).
This clearly demonstrates that to succeed and grow, tech businesses need to be part of an ecosystem that provides support, the right conditions to start (and grow) and that more and more of these are springing up across the UK. Nurturing a cluster takes time, so everyone involved, from local government to academia and investors have to think long term if they want to develop a tech ecosystem in their area.
What I’d like to see is companies and regions use this report as a starting point to build closer ties. Firstly, any businesses that feel they’ve missed out need to get on board and be given the chance to be added to the report. This is vital to keep it as a living, interactive document that maps changes over time.
Secondly, local government and organisations need to take a look and make sure that they are reaching the companies in their area, and providing them with the conditions for growth. At the very least local networks (or in their absence, local councils) should be making digital companies aware of their existence, and what they can do to help them. That way more sub clusters will form and grow, strengthening the overall picture.
I don’t think we’re yet the full Tech Nation that the report and research promises, but we’re definitely on the way – we therefore need continued focus and investment if we’re going to move forward, across the country.
One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.
So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.
Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.
What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.
Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?
As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.
Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.
In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.
Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.
Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.
The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.
On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.
All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.
But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.
Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.
Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).
Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.
I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.