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Media EU Referendum Communications

Life after Brexit: As professional communicators we must all now choose our words very carefully


By Dom Burch | managing director

June 29, 2016 | 6 min read

I don't know about you, but I've been feeling all at sea these past few days. Bobbing up and down, not quite sure which way I'm facing, should I sink or swim?


Normally during major historical events I'm somewhere else completely.

Figuratively cut off from the world and the ensuing madness that often follows.

Only then to return home something of a stranger in my own country having not shared in the experience with my fellow citizens.

For instance I was in Magaluf the morning after Princess Diana died and didn't return until after the funeral.

I was in Kos when two planes struck the twin towers, and I was on a month's vacation in South Africa with my family as rioters wreaked havoc across the country. Again, only landing back in the UK once calm had been restored.

So being here, and witnessing first hand such a seismic event with my own eyes has been somewhat bewildering.

The morning after the night before I tweeted an image of the change curve and asked people where they thought they were on it.

Denial? Anger? Exploring? Acceptance? Granted only 40 people responded, but most seemed to be in the anger phase, which perhaps says more about my social network than it does the mood of the entire nation. I myself jumped fairly quickly to explore. Right, come on Dominic, stiff upper lip. Jacket on. Let's make the best of it. Those who know about the change curve though will tell you it's very easy to become disillusioned and slip back round to anger or even denial. One thing has struck me though, as I reflect each day on events as they unfold, is how quickly we've moved on social media from a nation sharing in collective grief for the murdered MP Jo Cox, to one that resorts to name calling as our argument of default. Admit it, we all do it. I myself can't resist liking the occasional post on Facebook that calls Trump a pillock (or similar). It makes me proud to be British. Gary Lineker has made a new sport of it, often capturing the mood by calling Nigel Farage a dick, or worse.

But, here's the thing, name calling is really childish. It is by definition crude, overly simplistic, and easy to misunderstand or misinterpret.

At its worst name-calling can incite hatred.

Something as a nation we not only condone we have even legislated against.

Hate speech laws in England and Wales are found in several statutes. As such, expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, nationality (including their citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion or sexual orientation is forbidden.

Any communication which is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm or distress someone is forbidden. And the penalties include fines, imprisonment, or both.

But for any laws to be respected they must apply both ways, and to all concerned.

We often blame the mass media for exacerbating the situation.

Few can argue with the images of repeated Daily Express or Daily Mail front pages that singularly focus on the negative impact of immigration for instance.

But as professional communicators we too must look in the mirror at our own personal social media output.

If those views really are your own and not that of your employer, what does resorting to name calling and labelling others say about you?

Shut up you racist, bigot, traitor, scum, immigrant, fascist or whatever.

Surely name-calling debases the discussion to the level of the gutter.

If you truly feel that half the population can be defined by one word, then why the hell do we all spend so long analysing demographics, conducting research into the tiny nuances that drive our behaviour and make humans so annoyingly unpredictable.

On that point, the best analysis I've seen to date on what Leave voters have in common vs Remain was by Eric Kaufman of the Fabian Society.

He writes: "The pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.

"The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party."

He goes on to make the point that wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit, while poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

And adds: "The country has emerged from a bruising battle in which those fearing change lined up to Leave while folk comfortable with difference plumped for Remain. However, the two lines don’t perfectly overlap...The history of right-wing populism from the southern US to Northern Ireland is one of populist leaders riding their base to power but rapidly moderating once in office. Expect a fuzzy divorce, not a clean break."

Written only five days ago, but already looking like a prophetic view of the situation. Time will tell.

So where does this leave us?

My fear is the only thing that currently unites us is a sense of none of us really getting what we wanted out of the referendum. Other than a very small minority who wrongly think their warped views of humanity have been somehow endorsed by half the population. They haven't.

Words are easily spoken, but it's our actions that count.

And if our reputation as a nation is what people say about us when we leave the room, let's hope those words from our fellow Europeans are more than one syllable.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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