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Messaging Mistakes by YES

Messaging Mistakes by YES

winning referendums

No campaign is perfect. Ever. External factors play a role. Mistakes are made. Some you are forced into. Most you make yourself.

Pat Cash’s coach, Ian Barclay used to say to Pat before every match “Just get the ball over the net one more time than he does.” Eliminating unforced errors is as important in campaigns as avoiding double faults is in tennis. Below are a few of my ideas about some unforced errors on the part of the YES campaign in the AV referendum.


1. Know what to do. And when. I understand that YES spent a lot on polls in the very early stages of the campaign. Early money spent on polishing and testing messages is money well spent. Conducting early polls when nobody is listening is a waste of money.

2. It’s not nice to be nasty about the opposition. Calling Beckett, Blunkett and Prescott dinosaurs might have appeared a good rabble rousing line to the chatteratti but it alienated voters and Labour MPs alike. Gratuitous negative personal attacks – the dinosaur pic with Griffin, the Nazi smear and the “Goebbels” attack – alienate the public. They also helped us strengthen Labour Parliamentary support. These attacks also seemed a little strange coming from a campaign that wanted to “clean up politics”. (Two notes on negative attacks: 1.) Attacking a policy or a voting system is not a negative attack. 2.) Negative attacks on people only work when they reinforce the audience’s existing sentiment or are explicitly and immediately/recently provable or are a relevant case study. They are heightened when the audience feel emotionally involved.)

3. Be believable The YES arguments, while all faithfully recited, “Have a nice day” sound-alikes, were candy floss arguments that momentarily sounded good – but they had no substance or retail resonance. They were outcome arguments. The “What”, that smugly ignored the pithy and evidence-based “How”. It was a little like saying “Buy this car – it’s faster and safer than that one.” without showing any evidence for these claims. The public simply didn’t believe they would deliver what they promised. The spokespeople and use of celebrities didn’t help here at all.

4. Play in your own playground. Our first focus group flagged up cost as a strong argument. When we released our cost estimate the YES campaign went ballistic. For weeks at a time. They did our job for us. They gave our costings coverage and cemented the figure in the minds of the public. We could not believe our luck. They should have admitted AV might cost a bit more – “Don’t all upgrades?” – and then used the opportunity to sell the benefits of THEIR upgrade – all at “less than a pint” £1 per person. Instead of dechunking, trivialising and disregarding our £250 MILLION costing and focusing on why and how AV is wonderful, they broadcast our argument far and wide and were mute on their own territory.

5. Speak to people – not demographic groups. The Benjamin Zephaniah leaflet caused outrage in and out of London, emphasised the “luvvie” support for their campaign and helped to headline the debate amongst minority communities. People like bespoke and personalised. They don’t like being put in boxes or patronised. Big mistake. (Also – be very wary of those who promise to “deliver” certain demographic turf. Very, very rarely is this ever true on any scale. And doing so is lazy, risky and undemocratic.)

6. Be who you are The YES campaign successfully kept Lib Dem MPs out of the media in the early stages of the campaign. We were driven mad because we were constantly asked by the media for MP spokespeople while YES would always provide a supposed”civvie”. We put out briefings high-lighting the extraordinarily close links between the YES campaign and the Lib Dems which were hardly covered. And then the clouds opened and it rained and rained and rained. In the final weeks of the campaign, when people were actually (almost) listening, you could hardly switch on a TV without seeing a Lib Dem MP jumping up and down excitedly about the campaign. In doing so, they comprehensively unmasking the YES campaign as a Lib Dem vehicle. The fact that this resonated and blended with their own rhetoric about MPs being only out for themselves, transformed the feeling on the streets into a tangible “AV is from the Lib Dems, for the Lib Dems.” At the same time David Cameron and John Reid were sharing platforms and talking like grown ups about Britain. It was like the opposition were being shot by their own bullets. Utter magic.

7. Love, Salute and Acknowledge Lady Luck. She loves a campaign role. The 2010 Labour leadership election and the week that followed was the only experience of AV that most people in the UK had. Whenever one of our spokespeople said that the loser could win under AV, many people remembered Ed M vs. David M. This message resonated with people and reinforced what they believed. Of course, David M as leader could have had other implications too. No-one’s mistake. Just bad luck. But it was caused by AV.


1. Hire people who can deliver – business before pleasure. YES seemed to concentrate on their friends amongst “progressive alliance” members, some charities and their media allies. Anyone who wouldn’t have qualified for an invite to the chatteratti dining table was excluded – or only approached in a tick-box fashion or by spammy impersonal email. Cross party alliances and trust need personal contact, persistence and time. I am not aware of any Conservative MPs being actively courted like this. It seems the same was true for UKIP – even though they were declared as YES! This focus on “friendlies only” was a strange way of going about things for a cause that criticised MPs for being tribal and not reaching out to everyone.

2. Court, love and cherish your salespeople. They are the distribution channels for your message. And in politics, after the media, MPs are without doubt the best salespeople. Firstly they are experienced at skilled at selling issues, secondly they have an existing “customer” data base of people who have an interest in politics and thirdly, they have a existing GOTV infrastructure. Ignoring the people who control the most widespread, political collection of databases in the country who also happen to have an existing GOTV infrastructure was madness. Attempting to create an alternative was money and effort wasted. Failing to nurture the relationship with your existing messengers is as bad as not courting new ones.

3. Don’t mess with your Messengers! The first YES Public Election Broadcast had annoyed YES MPs and energised NO MPs. When the “Lazy MPs” YES leaflet came out, NO MPs stepped up their efforts even more and YES MPs either swapped sides, took their names off the YES advert in the Guardian or simply dumped or forgot to deliver the YES leaflets.

4. Show up in person. And smile! Email and social media are hugely important in modern campaigns.But initial personal contact with messengers of all descriptions (media, salespeople, staff, spokespeople, volunteers) is still the starting point. Social media campaigns are electronic recommendations and referrals and more – but based on existing relationships.

5. Know your target. And then talk to them. All of them. Every voter in the UK was a target. Using Twitter to reach people who don’t use twitter is as useful as writing a letter to someone and not posting it. YES was supposed to be about making MPs reach out more. But their apparent decision to focus on social media, younger people and leafleting only selected areas was undemocratic and electorally flawed. Obama’s campaign was heavily internet based. But it also reached out to everyone, both geographically, demographically and politically. And it also had a huge walking, talking, breathing army of precinct Captains and campaigners on the ground.

6. Celebs sell. Somethings. Sometimes. If you want to sell an aspirational consumer product (fashion, sports goods etc) celebrities can be useful. And very occasionally they are good in politics. Joanna Lumley was brilliant in the Ghurka campaign. But that was a campaign that resonated with people in the pub and her very personal connection with the Ghurkas, via her father, made it real. I am not sure that the endorsements of the YES celebs, or the way they were deployed, helped the YES cause at all. Do people really make important political decisions by blindly copy and pasting the views of their favourite entertainer?

7. Respect and understand the Media Selling stuff for you is not their job. They have their own jobs to do. They are humans too and deserve bespoke and personalised treatment. They resent the self-interested, the pushy and the self-righteous – and they do not like feeling used or exploited. Even in 2011, good personal long term relationships still count. Understand them, appreciate them and help them do their job.


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