The Yes and No campaigns - lessons for PR

The Yes and No campaigns - lessons for PR

Steven Harman

This September Scots will be asked a very simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country”?

I asked our former CIPR Diploma student Steve Harman - presently a communication adviser to the Green Party, and a freelance communications professional specialising in campaigning and media relations – what we can learn from the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ campaigns. This is what Steve told me......

Six months ago, the ‘Better Together’ campaign (against independence) had a consistent 17% lead in the polls, and anything other than a resounding ‘No’ vote seemed out of the question. Not so now, with some polls now showing the gap has shrunk to six points, and the ‘Yes-Scotland’ campaign enjoying more of the momentum.

While you may never work on a campaign as high-profile as the Scottish independence referendum, the effectiveness of the different strategies being employed by the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps provides lessons for any PR practitioner.  The chances are you’ve faced the same fundamental questions as them in your own work: How do you achieve a shift in audience opinion? How do you decide on your messages? Which channels should you use? Should you appeal to reason or to emotion? Do you focus on your own positive arguments, or on countering those of your opponent? Where do you direct your limited resources?

One of the joys of campaign communications that there are no definite answers to any of these questions, with opposing schools of thought on the best way to persuade audiences. But, as anyone who’s taken the CIPR’s campaign planning workshop or got to grips with the CIPR Diploma planning assignment will know, there are some basic principles that characterise any effective campaign, political or otherwise:

Paint a positive picture

There’s plenty of evidence that couching your case in positive terms is more likely to persuade your audience.   Anti-smoking campaigns are increasingly highlighting the positives of quitting (one current ad features ex-smokers running marathons) rather than displaying images of disease-ridden lungs - an approach which has been found can cause people to switch off. Similarly, the Green movement is moving away from painting apocalyptic scenarios of a post-climate change world, instead highlighting the positive case for reducing carbon emissions (more green jobs, lower fuel bills from better insulated homes, etc).

In Scotland, the Yes campaign has won plaudits for putting forward a positive, clear, vision of an independent nation, based on principles of collectivism and social democracy. The No campaign, by contrast has largely focused on the negative consequences of Scotland leaving the UK – loss of the pound, loss of jobs, threats to national security, and even “cataclysmic geo-strategic effects”.    Initially, this seemed to be an effective strategy, but ‘Project Fear’, as it has been dubbed, is increasingly being derided, with the SNP leader comparing the “positive, uplifting, hopeful”, Yes campaign with the “miserable, negative and depressing” No campaign.

Appeal to reason as well as emotion

According to one theory, there are two ways to persuade someone of your case. There’s the central route, where they process your arguments rationally, or the peripheral route, where they react emotionally.   Researchers have found that people are more likely to change their attitude in the long term if they process an argument rationally.

You might expect the independence campaign to have been the more likely to appeal to the heartstrings of voters, but instead of sticking up posters of Braveheart, it has largely focused on practical issues. Interestingly, it’s the No campaign that has struck a more emotional tone, calling on Scots “to feel the historic values” of the union.

Not all publicity is good publicity

I once had to tell a boss - who very much belonged to the ex-newspaper old school of PR - about a damaging story. Instead of the hairdryer treatment I was expecting, he grinned, patted me on the shoulder and assured me “All publicity is good publicity!” But that adage belongs to the outdated press agentry model of PR.  Media coverage isn’t a good thing in itself and is only valuable insofar as it supports your objectives. The minister whose gaffe resulted in a front page story that undermined one of the No campaign’s best arguments could tell you that.

Moreover, while the noise of the mainstream media is all around us, it’s not the only way to reach your audience, and it doesn’t influence the public as much as you might think.   In the 2008 US presidential election, the McCain campaign focused relentlessly on the media.   Despite initially coming under fire for letting their rivals dominate the news agenda, the Obama campaign stuck to its guns, devoting their energies to campaigning on the ground, and social media. We know which approach proved more successful.

Do your research

The most challenging campaign I ever worked on involved making the case against changes to doctors’ pensions – which were widely perceived to be extremely generous. After carrying out focus groups, we realised we were never going to persuade people that consultants deserved to retire on pensions treble the size of the average Briton’s annual salary. However, we also discovered that messages about the fairness of sudden changes to long-promised pensions did resonate, which became the focus of our messaging.

But you don’t have to be able to afford MORI to adopt an evidence-based approach to your campaign.   Questionnaires sent out with regular mailings, ad hoc focus groups of friends, and sixty-second surveys on the street, can all help you understand where you need to tweak what you’re saying. The Yes campaign’s White Paper on independence was heavily based on the results of data from volunteers who asked people on the ground what issues they cared about.

Make the most of what you’ve got

Unless you’re working for a massive, recession-proof organisation, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do everything you want to in a campaign. But you can do a lot with limited resources, especially if you can tap into the enthusiasm of people who share your cause.

With a PR team of only three people and newspapers that are generally unsympathetic to their cause, Yes Scotland has marshalled a strong grass roots movement, using it to drive a strong social media and on the ground campaign.   By contrast, the well resourced Better Together campaign has been criticised for its lethargy – “quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath” according to one commentator.


The narrowing of the polls has jolted them out of any complacency, and resulted in a promise to cut down the negativity. It also means the prospect of a gripping final phase of campaigning, with plenty of valuable lessons for any PR practitioner.

Thanks Steve - we're looking forward to hearing what others think.

(Steve studied for the CIPR diploma in 2006-7, writing his dissertation on trade unions’ use of social media. The grounding he gained in PR theory proved extremely helpful in his role as a press officer at the British Medical Association: he became the organisation’s first Strategic Communications Executive, and co-ordinated communications around its campaign against changes to NHS pensions.  He went on to work in Parliament for Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, handling the media work resulting from her arrest for a protest against fracking in 2013, and helping her E-petition for a review of drug laws reach 100,000 signatures.)

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