Notes for editors: what the campaign press releases tell us about Vote Leave and Britain

Campaigns have a range of communication methods. There are those with high control, such as a paid-for advertisement, and methods with less, such as reliance on supporters using social media. It is open to debate how much “control” there is over media coverage. However in the press releases/news releases issued by the two campaigns we have a clear indication of which messages were deliberately chosen, what timing was preferred and which spokespeople were viewed as credible. By looking at the language, content and frequency of the releases, we can also draw some conclusions about the nature and internal workings of the campaigns themselves.

Locating politicians to sign off releases can cause delay and it appears that Vote Leave knew that, in political/media terms, “speed kills”.

Earlier in the campaign period, I looked at both Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave to draw some preliminary conclusions. I then returned to the topic as the campaigns intensified. This article covers findings from both periods of time. Edge Hill University will be publishing more detailed material from this research.

Firstly, there can be no doubt that Vote Leave was most active in terms of press releases and media strategy. Not only was the volume greater, but there was use of both planned material (for example research into MEP expenses) and reactive or opportunistic material. Vote Leave’s “rebuttal” press release was often published ahead of the official publication of the other side’s case. Vote Leave also made good use of “piggybacking” opportunities. This consists of taking a predictable news event, such as the scheduled publication of unemployment figures or data on allocation of school places, and using this to make a point about the EU (usually linked to migration).

By contrast, Stronger In appeared to lack the ability to behave in this way. To a certain extent it was hampered by being the “establishment”. While, for example, Vote Leave made good use of the Tata Steel crisis in the days when the story led the news, it took Stronger In longer to make its points. There was a 15 June release featuring Stephen Kinnock, but this lacked the immediate punch of the earlier Vote Leave material.

It is a basic rule of press release writing that these should be written in a journalistic style. However Stronger In’s material occasionally gave a sense of being a news story rather than arguing a case. I am surprised for example that the 25 May release on military figures supporting Remain references gains made by Leave.

While Stronger In and Vote Leave were the officially designated campaigns, much was organised by other players such as the TUC and CBI. This meant that the official campaigns would choose which of these activities to highlight. Stronger In made much use of both. On these occasions Vote Leave would attempt to rebut. The campaign seemed particularly keen to rebut the CBI and used a strategy of attacking not just the content but the messenger. The theme that the CBI was “EU funded” was used several times in an attempt to undermine. This is clearly common in some political debate, but the enthusiasm to debunk “experts” is a clear theme running through the Vote Leave communications.

There is a difference in tone between the releases from the two campaigns. Stronger In on the whole maintains a measured tone, apart from in the text of some speeches. Vote Leave is much more likely to go onto the attack. For example we are told that “people will not believe” George Osborne or that David Cameron continues to “talk down our country”.

In a General Election, we hear from the politicians seeking our vote. It is rare to hear from those running the campaigns. In this contest however, Vote Leave made considerable use of Matthew Elliott as a quoted spokesperson. Elliott of course, as the former head of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, had media recognition. However, the use of a campaign official can also enable material to be published much more speedily. Locating politicians to sign off releases can cause delay and it appears that Vote Leave knew that, in political/media terms, “speed kills”. The ability to do this must stem from the culture of the campaign as well as its structure and I suspect that Stronger In officials sometimes felt constrained by their campaign structure and culture.

Finally, the themes. It is no surprise that the main theme running through the Vote Leave releases is immigration and its effects. This ranged from foreign criminals who cannot be deported to whether or not Turkey would join the EU. Vote Leave responded to worries about the lack of a plan with an announcement on 15 June of a “roadmap” to Brexit. This was somewhat overshadowed by George Osborne’s “emergency budget” announcement and subsequent reaction.

Stronger In’s themes were more diverse. A major theme was risk – risk to the economy, risk to services, risk to pensions etc. But there was also a thread of patriotism relating to Britain’s place in the world and the nation’s ability to be influential. This may seem odd from the campaign that does not advocate national independence, but planners appear to have realised that this was an issue needing to be dealt with.

Press releases cannot win or lose an election. What they can do however is increase or shape media coverage and therefore public perception. They can also ensure credibility with journalists. More interestingly for researchers, releases can give us an insight into the nature of the campaigns as they develop. And on this reading, Vote Leave simply had the better campaign.