Scottish Independence Referendum Public Relations

What the Scottish independence referendum has taught us about campaigning

By Rob Bruce |

September 17, 2014 | 6 min read

The end is nigh.

Author of this piece Rob Bruce (and yes, that is his real name)

No, not the end of the world, but the end of the independence debate (although I’m sure many will wake up on Friday feeling their world has imploded depending on the result).

And it all boils down to two very small words – Yes or No.

Two very small words with huge meaning, huge significance and huge implications.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride, bringing out the best in some and the worst in others. From abuse to advocacy, from blatant lies to brilliant stories, from humour to hate and passion to poison, every aspect of human nature has surfaced.

It’s been exciting, frustrating, annoying, informative and divisive, but most of all it has been inspiring. No matter what your intention is when you enter that polling booth, there is one thing we can all agree on, and that is it’s been a privilege to be part of such a historic event.

So after two years of bluff and bluster, claim and counter claim, and spin that just keeps on spinning, what have we as humble comms people learned?

Many things I’m sure, but The Drum has given me only 600 odd words, so here are the insights that matter to me, and I hope you.

Consumers are creatives

This whole debate has been about empowerment and the ability to influence. It’s about feeling and believing you matter and can make a difference.

And that has led to the most powerful pieces of campaign activity being created by the voters and not the communication specialists.

They understand their pals and peers better than you ever will, and without even thinking about it will they create and converse in the most compelling way.

“Power to the people” has never been so pertinent – consumers know it, want it and expect it.

That means brand owners need to stop dictating and start facilitating. If they don’t they a) risk missing out on a huge pool of creativity, reach and influence and b) they won’t meet the expectations of consumers who demand to play with, and not be played by, you and your brand.

Community relations is back

The Yes campaign, and its supporters, recognised very quickly that cutting out a hostile middle man – the traditional media – and using social media was a key way to inform and influence.

But they also recognised that social media was not the be all and end all. They needed more. So they mobilised their supporters to go out and talk to their own communities directly, almost one to one. They were encouraged to speak to family and neighbours, they organised town hall meetings, they did letterbox drops.

It was a masterclass in real world community engagement, and I think many marketers forget about the power of grassroots outreach because they have become obsessed by all things digital.

The Yes campaign gave their advocates the right tools, support and advice to help them become much more than just a voter. They created hundreds and thousands of brand managers empowered to speak on their behalf.

TV trumps the tabloids

The referendum has reminded us all about the power of TV. And unlike the bulk of print media, the reach and power of the TV has been amplified rather than diluted by technology.

The advent of two screen viewing provides interaction, instant reaction, commentary and conversation. And people can watch whatever they like, whenever they like, wherever they like with whoever they like.

Have a Plan B.....and C, and D

The biggest mistake the Yes campaign made was not appreciating the need for reassurance about the currency issue. The first rule in reputation management is perception is reality, no matter the reality. If you ignore people's concerns, whether real or imagined, there will be consequences.

Related to that, although it's vital you stand by your strategy, you must be willing to change your tactical plans. Sometimes time and time again. We live in a fast moving unpredictable world and your planning needs to accommodate that. You therefore need contingency plans which allow you to adapt and change quickly.

For example, it became very clear the negative messages coming from the No camp were turning people off. Voters wanted to hear positive reasons for staying in The Union. Yet they continued to bang that one and only drum because that’s what they planned, and you must stick to the plan!

As I’ve said many times, if your comms plan does not change at least half a dozen times in a year then you are not doing your job properly.

Finally, I think the biggest winner of the campaign that will benefit everyone is politics itself. People are excited, interested, engaged and motivated. That can only be a good thing for Scotland, whether it ends up independent or not.

Rob Bruce is a senior PR and communications specialist living and working in Scotland. For the record he will probably vote Yes, feeling obliged to do so because of his name. Nothing more.

Scottish Independence Referendum Public Relations

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