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Rational argument wins Scottish voters

19th September 2014


There will have been many sore heads across the United Kingdom, especially, of course, in Scotland since last Thursday’s historic day. Though many have forgotten that the Scots voted for devolution which led to the formation of the Scottish Parliament. My memory and research reminded me that a technical stipulation imposed on the vote by Westminster meant a simple majority – back then over 50 per cent – was not enough.

As someone who is hugely proud to be quarter Scottish (aye – the MacKay clan); quarter Welsh (Abergavenny and damn I missed the food festival yet again); and half English (North Yorkshire – Saltburn by-the-Sea, home of X-Factor winner James Arthur) – it’s fair to say I’ve felt limbo’ed and Stretch Armstronge’d in my head, heart and soul since the start of the Scottish Referendum. But that’s my stuff. And I’m happy to go on record that I’ve always felt we have to be ‘Better Together’.

But we can only be truly ‘Better Together’ if the people who we put our money and “trust” in – let’s use the phrase “reluctant faith” shall we? – to manage affairs nationally, internationally and at a local level, listen to us, the voters and tax payers. For communications professionals, there are many lessons to be learnt – good, bad and pug ugly – of how to and how not to campaign if you want to win.

So here are my top three conclusions:

Politicians – listen to your customers

Yes. Voters are customers. If you don’t listen, you won’t understand what people really think, want and need. As such you run the risk of becoming detached, deluded and complacent. 

It’s clear to most objective observers that the No campaign seriously underestimated the Pandora’s Box the Scottish Referendum would unleash. It forgot about the country’s history, our pride in that history, and the amazing achievements every Scot deserves to stand proud of.  

Emotional communications can often drive as much, if not more, support than rational. But it’s about balance. And third-party endorsement works!

Pride in your country/county/city/town/village matters

As do roots and history. This made the Scottish Referendum an emotionally loaded campaign from day one. Salmond and his team got this and nailed it. Yet the Westminster “bubble” failed to read the runes, (which seems a little foolish when you consider 1979). As a result, the Braveheart in some with Scottish blood and interests started beating. 

Serious grass-roots campaigning from the leaders of the No campaign seemed to come too late in the day and from the shock of the polls. The rational reasons to say No suddenly gave way to emotional outbursts which to some felt desperate, insecure and insincere. 

Yet whilst the Yes campaign excelled in emotional drum beating, it failed to get its rebuttal of No’s rational arguments in shape and, in my view, lost as a result. The 55 per cent versus 45 per cent margin most likely came from people who were clearly worried about the rational arguments the No campaign led on, not least the issue of currency. 

At the same time, the No campaign’s use of high profile advocates – from respected businesses to much loved celebrities – was stronger and more front of foot. It leveraged third party influencers better to back its claims that an independent Scotland would be all round worse off – especially economically and politically.

The power of social and traditional media

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Referendum played out hugely on social media. Everyone, from the voter in the street to politicians and high profiles on both sides of the debate, took to social media to air their views. This was critical for both the Yes and No camps, and also helped to engage younger voters in an unprecedented way.

As ever, Twitter – where topical wit and rhetoric travel like wildfire – has been home to the vast majority of discussion. There were half a million referendum-related posts from the 1st August before voting began. On Election Day, postings reached fever pitch, with 70,000 mentions on Twitter, inevitably the largest “spike” since campaigning began 18 months ago.

And who came out on top? If not in share of vote, then certainly share of social voice, Independent Scotland (@Scotland_2014) topped the bill. Its anti-Westminster stance put it ahead of the official Yes Scotland campaign across all social media channels. No wonder – social media is inherently more of an emotional comms channel than rational.

At the same time, however, traditional media, whether on or off line, helped both sides; arguably more the No campaign. A poll commissioned by the pro-independence website, Wings Over Scotland, suggested that 49 per cent of those polled said mainstream media wouldn’t influence them and 27 per cent felt mainstream media was biased against independence.

Seeing Nick Robinson’s face adorning a banner while being marched through the streets of Scotland as the whipping boy for the Beeb’s alleged partiality to the No campaign showed just how important clearly mainstream media is. At the same time, UK national titles like the Sun and Daily Mail used Scottish editions to grab as many Scottish readers as possible.

So what’s the next best PR move for both sides? Walk your talk. Listen to and consult with all in the United Kingdom, reform where necessary and deliver on your promise. If not there’ll be no winners.

The Referendum has already created a schism in the Scottish landscape, amongst families, friends, businesses and even religions. It’s way too early to see how this will express itself and play out following the adrenalin of the voting day and the crash the Yes fans are undoubtedly feeling. Who knows, it could take years to heal? Let’s hope not. But it all depends on how the next chapter is written.

And let’s look at our wee dram or pint of lager with eyes half full: 85 per cent turn out. That’s 85 per cent turn out! Sixteen year olds engaging in politics, and having a say in their future? Now that’s exciting. 

I truly thank the Scots for making this happen and hope that the legacy of this monumental Referendum is a positive one; one that reignites people’s interests in politics, feeling and knowing that they can have a say in the future of their country.

So for that, as well as for all the stuff we love about Scotland, past and present and without doubt future, I give thanks for the Mighty Saltire. 

I’m only sad that Mr Salmond has decided to resign following defeat, declaring: “For me as leader my time is nearly over but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die." He’s certainly earned his place in history. His charisma, passion and commitment will be missed over the next 15 months.         

Angie Moxham, head of agency, 3 Monkeys Communications



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