Brexit and public relations

European Union regulations give all of the 508 million people living in the EU the right to a replacement, repair or refund if something they purchase does not work as advertised. This legislation does not apply to claims made in political life or else we may be due a replacement referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Although given the pretty dire nature of the referendum most people would probably just rather put up with it than bother with the hassle of getting a refund.

It is very easy to find members of the public who think that all politicians lie and while that is obviously in itself untrue it is that case that events do prevent politicians from achieving things. Manifesto commitments fall away due to practicalities or changing circumstances but they are rarely discarded so quickly as following the referendum campaign. The final votes were still being counted while the promises of extra money for the NHS and reductions in immigration were being wriggled out of and that emergency budget didn’t materialise either.

For example people rightly took the Leave Campaign to mean the NHS would receive £350m a week if we left the EU. As it turned out the £350m figure was condemned by the Statistics Authority as misleading anyway. But when you look back at the claim, although some made a direct promise, the words on the side of the battle bus merely suggested that we could fund the NHS. That’s the kind of small print manipulating mendaciousness that would give anyone a bad name. And that’s where public relations comes in.

Making up figures and making claims that convey a false impression, or lying as it is more commonly known, obviously has no place in public relations. There is a very good reason for this which is about ongoing relationships. A company which lies about its product may increase their sales but they’re highly unlikely to build repeat custom and would face ultimate doom. Our CIPR code of conduct and ethics means that no credible public relations practitioner would propose using false information or countenance using them if asked to do so. When weighing up the pros and cons of the referendum campaigns we have to do so though the ethical standards we wish to see in our profession.

Being disingenuous with customers is bad for business but is bad for our political system too. It is estimated that 2.8m people voted in the referendum who normally don’t vote and some of them had not voted since the 1980’s. Vote Leave may have won the day but if what people voted for does not materialise it can only breed resentment which is bad for everyone, whichever way they voted. Good public relations can and should be a model for improving our political discourse.


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