How the UK Made Fools of the Experts

A Perspective on the Brexit Campaign

By Terence Fane-Saunders

This has been a bad time for experts

As the people of Britain headed for their polling booths, the opinion polls were almost unanimous.  The Remain camp would win, and win comfortably. The financial experts in the City of London rushed to take positions reflecting their same view. Britain would remain “In”.  And in the betting markets, hard-nosed professionals were staking heart-jolting sums on what they saw as a certain outcome.

These experts all were wrong.

Quite simply, the British people lied to the opinion polls; or, at least, a large percentage did.  And it was quite understandable that they should. Throughout the Referendum campaign, the Remain camp adopted a strategy of threat and insult possibly unparalleled in the history of mainstream British political debate.  Brexit supporters were vilified, demeaned even threatened for the views they held.  They were accused of racism, of prejudice and of sheer, ill-educated stupidity if they were even tempted to ignore the tsunami of expert opinion thundering down on them daily from the Remain camp.

As the campaign reached its crescendo, one other theme developed: ageism. Polls were showing that older people were more inclined to support Brexit; the young (including those too young to vote) were strongly in the Remain camp.  Gradually an insidious argument was built. These elderly voters were too old, maybe even too senile, to understand; stuck in the past.  They were voting on a future they wouldn’t share; barely deserved the right to a say. They were upholders of outdated prejudice. They were old.

This vitriol was not just confined to the messages pumped out from campaign headquarters, it poisoned the waters of social media, and spilt out into real-life human contact. In the workplace, in people’s homes, at social events, contacts were blocked, “friends” unfriended and real friendships ended. And in all this, there was a consistent message coming from the advocates of “Remain”:  if you support Leave, you are a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, possibly senile idiot.

On the whole, most people don’t like being defined that way.  So, when asked, “Do you support Leave” (meaning, “Are you a xenophobic, irresponsible, morally inferior, senile idiot”) they were quite inclined to answer “No”, or to say they hadn’t yet made up their minds.  But in the privacy of the polling booth, they felt free to vote as they really felt – and to make fools of the opinion polls and humiliate a whole world of chattering experts.

But if the vote itself delivered a crunching, bloody nose to the experts, so too did the campaign.  With all the weight and machinery of Government at his disposal, David Cameron enlisted a stellar list of experts and leaders to deliver almost daily warnings of the dire consequences of a Brexit vote.  Even President Obama was produced in Downing Street to warn that Britain would go the “back of the queue” if it was hoping for any special trade deals following a Brexit.

And a strange thing happened.  The British public turned against the experts.  Michael Gove caught the mood: “People in this country”, he proclaimed, “have had enough of experts”.  And it appeared he was right. Certainly, the great weight of expert opinion, from the IMF and the Bank of England to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had stampeded into the anti-Brexit camp.  And in this perhaps lies the clue as to what went wrong. It was anti-Brexit, not pro-Remain. One after the other, the experts lined up to condemn Brexit.  They warned of economic and social disaster; of a cataclasm leading to a cataclysm. “Project Fear” was launched.  And to terrify any uncertain voters into final submission, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a “punishment” budget with £30 billion of tax rises and spending cuts which he said would be immediately imposed if the country was irresponsible enough to vote Leave.

But it was a flawed, crude and ineffective strategy. Nobody has ever rallied to a banner inscribed with the words “Or Else”.

Yet the Remain campaign was unremittingly grim, threatening, negative and joyless. It had the opportunity to talk up Britain’s unique and exciting possibilities as part of Europe, but safely outside the Euro, protected by potent powers of veto, and a range of special provisions. There was so much to believe in, to hope for, to celebrate. Instead, they unleashed the black forebodings of Project Fear.  But over at the Leave camp they took a different approach.  They promised change – perhaps the most potent word in the political arsenal.  They recognised that for a great proportion of the British population, life was hard, offering little hope or pleasure. The status quo held no appeal.  Brexit offered the chance of change, a hope of something better, however ill-defined.

The Brexit camp did not have to be too specific.  They just promised better times, when the country would “take back control”.  Boris Johnson injected a sense of hope and fun: “This is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond”.  They offered someone to blame – the faceless, unelected bureaucrats of the European Union, and they offered a rallying cry “Independence Day”.  Mostly, too, the Leave campaign were smart enough not to over-use the Immigration issue.  They knew it was working for them already.  And they understood that in areas such as the National Health Service, the role of foreign workers was recognised and welcomed across all levels of society.  So their campaign was never allowed to be just an anti-immigration bandwagon. It was about “establishing control” over immigration, keeping the immigrants we value, getting rid of the ones we don’t.

Negative PR can work, and fear can be a potent force.  But it needs subtlety and understanding of the audience.  On this occasion, there was little sign of either.  Fear, as a campaign strategy, simply didn’t work.  Partly this was because the economic disasters predicted were seen by many less affluent  voters as having little to do with them.  Their view was that, for themselves at least, things couldn’t get much worse anyway.  So they weren’t particularly alarmed.  They felt that these were threats to the banks, to big business, to the property owning middle classes, to the London elite, with their History of Art university degrees. And any pain that might be felt in those circles wouldn’t trouble them greatly.  But the prospect of change in their own circumstances offered a glimmer of hope, and that was worth voting for.

Another problem for the Remain camp was that the issue was complicated beyond the true understanding of even the most well-informed voter.   The staggeringly complex social, economic and political implications of a possible Brexit could at best be comprehended through a cloud of conjecture and uncertain consequences.  But our university-educated middle classes could never accept that any issue was beyond their intellectual grasp. So they fell hungrily upon the expert prognostications pouring out from the Remain camp, and swallowed their apocalyptic visions whole.   They now felt that they too were sufficiently expert to justify certainty of opinion, and that utter certainty coloured what became an increasingly intolerant debate.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
W.B Yeats

For the less affluent and less highly educated, there was a more limited ( and so, perhaps more realistic) attempt to address the issues.  For many, it was like the blind man and the elephant’s tail, comprehending the issue in terms of what was actually within their grasp –  their immediate and personal experience, with no sense of the greater shape of consequences beyond.  And here, unemployment, housing and immigration formed a potent mix.  Finger-wagging lectures from the IMF or dark warnings from the Bank of England would seem less part of the real world that they inhabited day to day. And they bridled at criticism from the more affluent , “educated” class, the angry, condescending tone and the passionate intensity of their newly acquired “expertise”. The temptation to tweak the nose of the Establishment is never far away with the British people..

People tend to believe what they want to believe, and evidence to the contrary can have little impact.  In fact, it can even harden conviction.  This is something we see frequently in our Crisis Management practice, and it was clearly happening here.   But when it comes to voting, people also prefer to vote for people they like, and here again, the Remain camp lost ground throughout the campaign. They were increasingly easy to dislike.

For the Leave camp, Boris Johnson sustained his bumbling, clever, rumpled, cheerful celebrity persona, with a surprising leavening of focus and self-discipline.  Michael Gove restrained the sharper edges of his personality, and came across, mostly, as a decent, courteous and clever man (at least until the Referendum was over).  Nigel Farage performed his pint-in-hand man-of-the-people act, and, when attacked quite successfully portrayed himself as the victim of the hated metropolitan establishment– “When you challenge the establishment in this country, they come after you”. The educated, southern, metropolitan elite largely responded with disdain.  But across the country as a whole the Leave team were connecting with the voters.

The Remain campaign, meanwhile, adopted the guise of a fierce school-teacher, lecturing the quailing public about the punishments to be meted out if they fell out of line.  And people didn’t like it.  More important, they began to dislike the teacher.  But the messages coming from the Remain leadership were given an additional colouring by the poisonous venom injected into the argument  on social media.  The tone adopted by much of the educated elite was the British class system at its worst – arrogant, belittling, aggressive, insulting.   As a Remain supporter myself, but with reservations, it was increasingly difficult to prevent distaste for the advocates of Remain from contaminating objective assessment of the arguments.  But across large parts of Britain, that distaste actually shaped voter intentions.

In the end, fear failed as a PR strategy.  People preferred hope, however crudely ill-defined.  Insults and aggression achieved nothing, but only alienated those who needed to be persuaded.  And a large part of the British public made fools of the experts.

A lesson in bad public relations.






Managing your Brexit Crisis

Brexit is not a seven day crisis; nor even seven week or seven month.

In fact, in a long career of crisis management, I have never seen its like. Yes, of course, there are immediate issues to be addressed.  In an utterly changed landscape, issues of confidence have suddenly been unleashed.  Previously solid, secure, safe enterprises now find their very futures   questioned.  Staff look for reassurance on job security; lenders want to know that their exposure is still without risk; clients and customers need to be sure that delivery will in no way be impaired.  But in a time of churning, opaque uncertainty, messages of reassurance can easily sound more like whistling in the dark. As ever, credibility is king, and reassurance based on wishful thinking can do more harm than good.

But for many organisations, this will be merely the beginning.  Ahead lies the likelihood that a changed professional, societal, political and commercial universe will demand hard decisions and painful measures.  And each of these will need to be managed in such a way that they do not, in themselves, spread further uncertainty and alarm.

These days, most well-run organisations have their Crisis Management plans in place, but fewer have strategies for Acute Issues Management, and this is what will be needed now. Systems and strategies for issues monitoring and early identification, scenario planning, access to informed, objective external counsel, especially in areas such as legal risk, government affairs, and indeed, strategic crisis management can all be hugely important.

Stakeholder communications will also be uniquely difficult.  In most Crisis Management these can be planned in terms of the crisis event, and the management of a projected, intended future.  But here we are looking at the probability of wave after wave of unexpected events, each with the capability to shock, destabilise and re-direct.   Future uncertainty is a critical part of the crisis we now need to manage, and many of the usual tropes of management, control and direction will be wholly inadequate in this context.

Experience and well-honed judgement will be at a premium now. But there is a danger, too, that experience will become its own trap. For many organisations, the challenges that lie ahead will be unprecedented, and application of rules, procedures and responses that worked in more normal times will be simply inadequate.  Good management now will need more than at any time to show the ability to think outside the box; to move beyond immediate experience   Crisis is also a time when management teams can slip into Group Think, developing rigid, single-view, sclerotic positions and responses, hardening with each new challenge.  This, again, is a time when a knowledgeable, independent, sympathetic source of advice and comment can be of real value.  This may be a non-executive chairman.  It may be a trusted legal or strategic public relations advisor.  It may be a respected former colleague, perhaps retired but still current, close enough to advise with authority and understanding, but not so close as to become part of any settled internal perspective.

Difficult, challenging times.  But, change can bring opportunity too, and those organisations with effective Acute Issues Management strategies may find that they not only limit potential damage, but that they actually create areas of fresh opportunity.

Terence Fane-Saunders
June 2016

What We Should Learn from Donald Trump

Donald Trump doesn’t do hand shaking outside the local church. He rarely even stays the night in any one state. Rather than the folksy meet and greets previously the staple of Primary season, Trump opts for huge rallies, a relentless focus on spectacle and an unrivalled ability to court controversy. This is the new political reality for the Republican Party, in fact for the entire American political landscape. Trump has torn up the rules of electoral trail; and now the mavens of the PR world need to reassess the strategies and techniques we had once taken for granted.

By harnessing the power of shock, Trump has forced the world media into the role of unwilling accomplices. How can they not report his words?   In an age of ‘clickbait’ and ever-decreasing attention span, Trump seemingly improvises moments of shock which bypass the intellect and attach themselves to something much more visceral. Whether he is demonising entire religions, berating foreigners or launching personal, colourful and often shockingly crude personal attacks on his opponents, he not only demands attention, he actually provides a form of entertainment. In the same way a playground fight is surrounded by a baying crowd until someone of authority steps in, so do millions of Americans tune in, click on and cheer for Donald Trump’s latest provocation. Except now there is no authority figure to step in and reprimand. Through two very deliberate choices, Trump exploits this opportunity with almost frightening professionalism. Quite simply, he has devised a communications strategy which allows him absolutely to dominate the election, at minimum cost.

His first choice: shamelessness. Trump has very deliberately chosen to be news-noisy; to say hurtful, shocking things; to cajole and bully. His Primary competitors, the very people who would normally hold this behaviour to account, have often been reluctant to provoke one of his devastating tirades. And when they have attempted to play the same game, turning on him in synchronised attack during the debates, they lose, both because they have yet to master the language of raw insult, and because their attacks simply turn any debate into the Donald Trump Hour. It’s all about the Donald.  Meanwhile, the American news media have become hooked on Trump. They turn to him for their regular ratings fix. They may despise themselves for their dirty little habit, but he makes them feel good. He delivers the ratings, and they really don’t care how grubby the packaging. Trump knows this and willingly supplies a fresh dose of high octane coverage every couple of news cycles.

Astonishingly, recent figures from Ad Age show that Trump has spent just $10 million on advertising, compared with almost $85 million by Jeb Bush. Even Marco Rubio had shelled out $49 million. But hey, there you are.  Lean PR can run circles round the bloated budgets of the ad industry! The formula is quite straightforward.  Targeted, easily-digestible content can be created for (comparative) peanuts, and disseminated on the internet. This is not new, and bypassing traditional media outlets is now an established trend. But Trump has added an extra frisson . The content he delivers is so newsworthy, so shocking, so unerringly populist, that he forces the traditional media to relay his message, and so the impact of the original clip is multiplied and multiplied again.

The second choice: positioning. Trump has identified the rising tsunami of anti-establishment sentiment, and ruthlessly exploited it, positioning himself as the angriest, most competent outsider. He has portrayed himself as the Grand Crusader against political correctness. For the past eight years Republican politicians, egged on by the media, have railed against the ‘politically correct’, in the notionally liberal world of an Obama administration. The phrase is used to demonise a Washington that is viewed as unfit for purpose. This has been a magic formula, allowing even the most offensive and shocking remarks to be celebrated as victories against the forces of the politically correct.  The message is simple: Trump is an outsider, not part of the out-of-touch Washington elite and, frankly, he says what is on his mind, even if it isn’t ‘politically correct’. This creates a hideous quagmire for both his Republican rivals and the mass media. To attack him for being politically incorrect or inexperienced is no longer an insult. In fact, it’s an accolade. He has made himself, for now at least, virtually invulnerable to charges that would bring down other candidates.

But maybe Trump understands the public better than they realise. And better than they might like. It’s a cliché on both sides of the Atlantic that “the public aren’t fools”; that there is an innate wisdom in the electorate that enables them to see past the lies, deceptions and mendacity of the political class. The Republicans currently have a petition on their website titled ‘The American People are not stupid’. Yet if the events of the past few months are anything to go by, then maybe that self-congratulatory petition is actually and evidently absurdly wrong. Trump offers very little in the way of policy, yet is the frontrunner in the party election. He reduces great issues to simplistic slogans and invests them with prejudice and bile.  Simple assertion replaces argument, evidence or thought. Counter-argument is abandoned in favour of the much more effective techniques of insult and offence.  And this, apparently, is what huge swathes of the public want. It’s how they need the great issues of our times addressed.  So, what does this say about the public? It would be easy to believe that, in reality, they are remarkably stupid, shallow, ignorant and easily manipulated, especially when the manipulator plays back to them  their own prejudice and bias as part of his pitch.  Or perhaps it is something better than that. Perhaps the public, particularly Trump’s public, are simply tired of box-ticking speeches and technocratic promises. Perhaps they see through the carefully calibrated communications strategies that attempt to cover all the bases while minimising risk. Either way it begs the question: are we in the Public Relations industry overthinking it?

Strip away one’s own feelings and we are left with this: by combining a simple message, picking the appropriate emotional level with which to deliver it, and then disseminating the content in bitesize chucks, Trump has forged a formidable PR strategy. This may all sound rather textbook, but once you factor in the personality-driven spectacle of Trump, we see that he has actually undone many of the rules of political PR. His public appearances are not crisp or manicured. His speeches are meandering. When asked tough questions about say, foreign policy, he delivers responses that are defined by what is absent, a choice example being ‘I will be so good at the military your head will spin’. Clearly this is not a pre-planned statement sourced from policy commissions, run-past consumer groups, copy approved by backers and moulded by press officers. Trump relies on gut punches of angry sentiment while promising the world. And it is exactly what his audience wants to hear. It’s human, unpolished and it is not what you hear the folks back in Washington saying.  And it’s certainly not what their PR advisers are recommending. But maybe now, those PR advisers are coming to recognise that they need to re-write their rule books.

Whatever the outcome of this campaign, we in the PR business must learn a few lessons from Trump. Clinical strategies and perfectly worded press releases are meaningless without persona. As we strive to become more professional and scientific in our approach, we run the risk of homogeneity or blandness. He has demonstrated the raw power of message amplification; he has perfected the art of the retweet. By combining an astute knowledge of his audience with the strong personality they crave, he dominates the news and demands attention.  And he has perhaps taught us worrying and distasteful lessons too. If you flavour your arguments with the prejudice and fear that is already in the hearts of your audience, you can say almost anything. They will accept and believe.  You are their man, giving voice to their prejudice and bigotry.  You and the audience will own each other.

By breaking the orthodoxy of PR, Trump has created unassailable content and delivery systems. Ultimately though, the rise and rise of Trump has proved one thing; that with something as mercurial and unpredictable as public opinion, there is no such thing as a rulebook.

Terence Fane-Saunders
March 2016


As a PR technique,  wholehearted apology can do wonders for you.  It takes the wind out of your critics’ sails, displays your integrity and courage and puts you on the side of the angels.   So you’d think more people would apologise more often.

The trouble is, they just can’t bear to do it.  And when, under pressure, they finally do, their apologies are so filled with weasel words and sneaky justification that they end up doing more harm than good.   We’re all too familiar with the classic “I’m very sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks….” meaning, of course, that the problem lay not in the remarks themselves, but in the unreasonable / unintelligent / downright stupidity of anyone who was misguided enough to be offended.  I’m not going to apologise.  I’m just sorry they are so stupid.

So, Oliver Letwin needed a stonking good apology.  Here’s what he offered us :

“I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong.  I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and wish to make clear that none was intended.”

Hmmm. Let’s deconstruct this wholehearted apology for a minute.

“Some parts”.  Just in case you thought the memo itself was offensive and misguided, let’s make clear we are only talking of some parts. Hard to think of a more fastidious separation of content since Du Maurier gave us the Curate’s Egg:

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

“A private memo” . So no business of yours.

“I wrote nearly 30 years ago”. Actually, a perfectly fair point.  Most of us of any age will have said and done things in the distant past which make us wince today.  But this is a point for others to make.  If you introduce it into your apology, you are immediately flagging up your need to mitigate and wriggle. Now your apology begins to ship water.

“both badly worded and wrong”.  Here the apology manages to be both clever and clumsy all at the same time.  Why not just say “What I wrote was wrong and inexcusable”? Well, you see, if I say it was “badly worded and wrong”, it sounds like I am being even more self critical – with an apology for my prose style as well.  Very humble here.   But of course, if I throw in a “badly worded”, then actually I am managing to sneak in the thought that I didn’t really mean it. It was just badly worded.  It came out wrong.  Now the apology has developed a full sneak of weasels . (Honestly.  That’s the collective noun for those vicious little beasts).

I apologise unreservedly.  Not really, it appears.

any offence these comments have caused. Not “any offence I have caused“. You see, it wasn’t me.  It was those pesky little badly worded comments.

“and wish to make clear that none (offence) was intended.  So there’s one important point this apology seeks to clear up.  The suspicion that deliberate offence was intended.  In this private memo, to Mrs Thatcher. Because we all were thinking that perhaps Oliver Letwin wrote it with every intention of causing offence, weren’t we?

Actually, this is one of the oldest and most crass techniques in the Non-apology strategy manual. Apologise for something for which no offence has been taken, or clear up a suspicion where none existed anyway.  It sounds like you are busy doing the right thing, when really you are not doing anything much at all.

Now, actually, I rather like Oliver Letwin. I think he’s a bright man who often talks a lot of sense.  On balance, I think he has been good for British politics.  And I am also pretty sure he no longer holds those views of 30 years ago.  But this apology deserves to enter the annals of PR horror stories.  It should be cited in lectures and quoted in text books.  It really is appallingly, clunkingly, buttock-clenchingly bad.   Depressingly, I fear that it was the product of a third rate “spin doctor”, rather than the honest expression of a decent man’s true remorse.

Terence Fane-Saunders
December 30, 2015





Personal attacks on Donald Trump just don’t work; in fact,  they may actually strengthen his support. This is an empirical, uncomfortable, simple fact. It’s Issues Management for Beginners. You can see the same rule applying in British politics, where Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are jostling for the opportunity to pour vitriol on their new hate figure – to very limited effect.  Whether it’s political naivety or self-indulgent posturing that drives them, time and again the only result is a strengthening in the following of those they attack.

It’s quite simple really.  Insult the beliefs and values of a popular leader, and you are insulting the beliefs and values of those who follow them.  And abuse and disparagement is seldom the best way to win anyone round to your point of view.

In the US, Trump grows louder with every speech. Each news cycle starts and ends with him pouring scorn on a new target. For so many of his opponents, the kneejerk reaction seems to be to fight fire with fire. They attack his policies, insult his views, even mock his hair. And it certainly feels satisfying. Safe in their certainty that they’re right and he’s wrong, they insult and mock and howl their condemnations. This torrent of invective may feel legitimate, justified and necessary, but does it actually work?

If the purpose of your onslaught is public posturing simply designed to impress your own supporters, then yes, perhaps. Or if it’s an emotional response; outraged venting, purely intended to blow off steam and allow you to feel better in yourself, then, maybe this will do the trick. Feeling better now?  But if the purpose of the attack is change, real substantive change of opinion among those you with whom you disagree, then this kind of personal vilification will almost never work. Put yourself in their shoes for one moment. If someone who disagrees with your views and ideals tells you that you are stupid, racist, ignorant and evil for holding them, how will you react?  “Oh really? Gosh?  I had better completely change my views then!”

At the time of writing, Trump is polling a 38% approval from registered Republicans. Corbyn achieved a near 60% victory in the Labour leadership election.  These voters are not marginal, swivel-eyed extremists camped at the edge of the political universe. They are ordinary people, mainstream people, with normal worries, honest concerns and decent values.  You may disagree passionately with the solutions offered by the leader they support, but you disparage their beliefs and values at your peril. When David Cameron sneeringly dismissed UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”, he will have done nothing to win round a single UKIP supporter.  When he called Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”, it’s hard to imagine a single one of them thinking: “The Prime Minister has opened my eyes. I find that I am a terrorist supporter.  I must change my views forthwith!”

Donald Trump has tapped into the heart of middle America. If his message has been crude, sometimes offensive and often simplistic, it has resonated with the real fears and concerns of large numbers of decent, ordinary people. There is a danger that our political commentariat is incapable of understanding this. They treat Trump’s followers with condescending disdain, whilst his political opponents continue to hurl barbs and insults crafted in backrooms by their political advisers.  And all the time, his support grows.

Essentially, this is a form of the Group Think response we often see in our crisis management work.  Put a management team under pressure, inundate it with criticism and condemnation, and what happens is a hardening of position, a growing refusal to accept other views or even fresh evidence.  Abuse a significant part of the population for its views and beliefs and you will only alienate them.

If you believe that Trump’s solutions are dangerous, naïve, inflammatory and impossible to apply, then you need to cut away the support he enjoys. You need to reach out to that following and find ways to reach their hearts and minds and win them away from him. But if you are going to do this with any chance of success, then you need to do so with respect and empathy. Never disdain.

Find a platform of shared values and concerns. This may be easier than you think.  Remember, these are decent people, good people. They are not fools and they are not monsters.  Their concerns are just as likely to be yours.  Where you may differ from the leader they follow is in the allocation of blame and cause, and the solutions suggested. But if you are seen to share and understand those concerns, truly and with conviction, then you  earn the right to propose alternative solutions.  If you can’t accept those concerns, or understand and share those fears, how can you begin to offer solutions?

Generally, whatever the cause or movement, if it gains significant traction this will be because it has its roots in real and valid concerns.  While the leadership of anti-fracking or animal rights groups are chaining themselves to fences and sabotaging laboratories, the majority of those who back them do so out of a genuine concern for the welfare of the earth and the animals that inhabit it, not out of a love for theatrics.  The same can be said for the supporters of Donald Trump in America, or UKIP supporters or Corbyn followers in Britain. If you disparage their beliefs and values, you only entrench opposition. If you are to win them over, then find common ground, build a bridge of understanding and empathy. Now you will be heard.

If you disagree with Donald Trump, if you want his arguments to fail, then you must take ownership of the emotional and political base on which he stands. Make common cause with the people on whom he depends.  respect their values, adopt their aspirations, take on board their fears, build that bridge to their hearts and minds, and now demonstrate that his “solutions” actually pervert and undermine the causes that he claims to represent. This can be the only way to fight a dangerous populist. Allow them to keep shouting, until they realise that there is no one left to listen.

Whatever the Result, the No Campaign failed

Maybe the No campaign will limp lamely over the finishing line as winners; maybe they won’t.   The opinion pollsters seem as bemused as the rest of us.  But if they do win, whatever the margin, let nobody describe this as a triumph. As a campaign, and as an exercise in true public relations the No campaign has been an abject, cringing failure at almost every stage. Overwhelmingly, the arguments should have been on their side. It was virtually an open goal, politically.  But somehow, the dry, unimaginative,  dullards shaping the campaign, apparently without an iota of PR intelligence between them, have managed to create the incredible possibility of a Yes win.  Even if the No camp succeed, the hostility and bitterness spread by their negative campaigning will have damaged the United Kingdom for decades to come.

The dream of Scottish independence was never a dream for bean counters.  It was never about the price of goods in Tesco , nor interest rates, nor the level of taxes.  Yes, all these things mattered, and they all belonged in the debate.  But it was never about practicalities.  It was a dream, a vision, a wild, romantic, myth-laden , joyful, utterly impractical fantasy, astonishingly made practical by the  rumpled, tubby, golden-tongued, politically canny Emperor of Holyrood.

Salmond stirred up a broth of hope and longing.  He reached back into legend and history; he recited poetry from the heart, and evoked potent , wonderful, half-formed visions, allowing his fellow-dreamers to colour them in.  It was never about detail for Alex Salmond, never about book-keeping.  Don’t ask him about post-independence currency, don’t question Scotland’s right to membership of the European Union.  These quibbles had no place in the big picture. They had no tune to contribute to the old music he was stirring in the hearts of the Scottish people. He had the clans on the march again.

To counter this, the No campaign chose its own champion.  Alistair Darling. Lawyer, former Chancellor, decent, competent, sensible, joy-killing, dry-as-dust political Dementor, tasked with spreading depression and despair through the Yes campaign ranks.  And gloom, overwhelmingly, was the strategy of the No campaign.  Talk up the risks.  Threaten disaster.  Listen to these bankers, these brokers, these economists. They’ll tell you how bad things will be. With war looming, the No campaign platoon was put in the hands of Private Frazer . “We’re doooomed ! ”  

Only in the final, dying days of the campaign, with the shocking possibility of defeat suddenly looming, did any sense of passion seem to enter the hearts of the No campaigners.  But even then, it was largely a joyless passion.  It was fear. It was grief.  “Don’t leave us. We need you”. The cry from Westminster sounded like the doomed wail at the end of an affair.

How humiliating, too, embarrassing, unconvincing, manipulative and crass was the sudden rush in the last few days of the campaign to offer the people of Scotland an array of shining new new privileges and rights.  This was like the man who has forgotten his wedding anniversary stopping on the way home to grab a few bunches of flowers from the garage round the corner.  If the No campaign leaders really believed, in their hearts, that the people of Scotland deserved these extra trinkets, why were they not on offer from the outset?

But where was the pride and joy in all the Union has achieved? Where the vision of these great nations shaping their future place in the world, each lending special strength to the other?  The unique synergy of cultures, values, beliefs and abilities that is the United Kingdom has been unparalleled in the history of this planet.  It has been, and still is, absolutely a force for decency, civilisation, tolerance and democracy, and by god, the world needs those qualities right now.  If you believe these things, then taking apart such a precious creation would be an act of childish, hubristic political vandalism.

Of course, the warnings and the practicalities had their place in the argument.  But campaigning against  the passions unleashed by Salmond, something more was needed than Belloc’s “always keep a-hold of Nurse; For fear of finding something worse.” We needed to believe in something better.  In this, whatever the Referendum result, the No campaign failed.

Terence Fane-Saunders
16th September, 2014



The Ukraine crisis is hideously dangerous: Vladimir Putin has too much at stake. This is the land he likes to call “Little Russia”, the cradle of Russian civilisation and its Orthodox religion. Russia’s huge military port at Savastopol (which has just appointed a pro-Kremlin Russian citizen as mayor) gives his Black Sea fleet winter access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Ukraine’s pipeline network is critical to Moscow, carrying roughly half of Russia’s gas exports to Europe. Large numbers of its people speak Russian and think of themselves, at heart, as Russians. Without Ukraine, Putin’s vision of a Eurasian Union (including Belarus and Kazakhstan) would be the sad pipe dream of an ageing man.

But what makes this even more threatening is what the loss of Ukraine – particularly Crimea – would do to Putin’s image. Sometimes we can become prisoners of the image that we ourselves have created. Remember the photos of Putin, naked to the waist, gun in hand, a slightly pallid Russian “Rambo”. This is the image he has cultivated and cherished. The “man’s man”, the tough guy who doesn’t back down. Putin has a reputation as a winner. Now he must not, cannot lose Ukraine – or at least Crimea and “Russian” Ukraine. If he does, he goes, in one graceless tumble, from Rambo to Elmer Fudd.
I don’t believe Putin has yet decided whether or how to intervene, but the pieces are being put in place to justify armed intervention if needed. The Duma talk of making Russian passports easier to obtain for Ukrainian ethnic Russians. The Foreign Ministry makes ominous noises about human rights of Russians in Ukraine. The Russian media are full of frenzied stories of the fascist nationalists in Ukraine. Echoes of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ring uncomfortably clear. And now 150,000 Russian troops have been ordered into an exercise to test the “combat readiness” of the western and central command.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no strong Ukrainian leader to fill us with hope. Even in Kiev it’s recognised that an angelic face, two years imprisonment and a bad back does not make the controversial former gas magnate Yulia Tymoshenko a heroine. Her record suggests she would be both divisive and ineffective. Klitcschko is probably not ready, and was booed by the Maidan crowd.

Europe cannot allow Russia to seize Ukraine. But Putin cannot afford to lose it. He looks in the mirror, and the spectre of Elmer Fudd may be looking back. Russia’s Rambo might need to reassert his manhood. A horribly menacing phase looms.

Reputation Threat


I think it's time for a little healthy paranoia.

If you are a high profile individual, or if you hold a top position in a high profile organisation, or if what you do is intrinsically interesting, then, yes, you should be paranoid. Assume you are under attack. An army of people is after your secrets. They may be sitting in a back room of a Moscow apartment; they may be lurking at a table next to you in an airport lounge, or even in that car with blacked-out windows parked discreetly outside your house. They may be anywhere. But what they have in common is that they are looking for information you don't want them to have, and they have the tools to extract it.

Of course, you may operate in an environment of meticulous care, where your commercial and business secrets are safeguarded and protected with professional skill and rigour. More and more enterprises are recognising that safeguarding confidential information has to be one of the basic fundamentals of good management. But that still leaves your personal life unguarded, and that can just as surely destroy your professional reputation.

The threats to our privacy are growing exponentially, as smart technology worms its way into every corner of our lives. There is a well-publicised report now being investigated by the Information Commissioner of LG smart TVs on sale in the UK feeding confidential information and data back to the manufacturers in Korea. Even simple household appliances seem to be morphing into sinister tools of intrusion, with reports from Russia that hidden microchips had been discovered in kettles and irons imported from China, and that these were there to pump spam data and malware into wi-fi networks, allowing confidential data then to be sent to a foreign server. Not a story you'd necessarily believe, but you wouldn't want to bet your career against the possibility, either.

Recently I took part in a presentation to a group of generals visiting from a friendly third world country. A colleague with a security background caused an uneasy ripple when he showed them how easy it was to transform their mobile phones, undetectably, into wireless microphones broadcasting everything they said, and the meetings they held, to be listened to on his own phone, wherever he happened to be.

The same colleague also showed how easily and quickly the entire contents of your phone can be downloaded, if you leave it in the wrong hands for just a few minutes. At government offices and embassies around the world, he insists on removing the battery from his phone before handing it in. “It doesn't prevent them getting at it, but it makes it more difficult”. Perhaps a reason to choose a phone with an easy-to-remove battery!

I'll leave it to others who are better qualified (and at Chelgate we work with several) to talk about the challenge to corporate confidentiality, and the ways of building better protection into your business. But the people cracking open your secrets are not just looking for commercial information. They are after your reputation, too. All the recent talk of phone hacking is really only the glimmering tip of a very large iceberg.  Hugh Grant may never have his phone hacked again. But his privacy will still be far from secure.

Law firms are coming at the same problem from the legal perspective, and ending up in much the same place. Keith Schilling explained to me over breakfast recently how Schillings had acquired an IT security company, and you can see how that makes sense. You want to keep your clients' privacy safe, if you can. But if it's compromised, you need to know how and by whom if you are going to be able to put it right.

For PR professionals working in Reputation Management, Reputation Protection has become an increasingly central part of the job. A vital part of this is helping our clients to protect their privacy, spotting when it has been compromised, and moving quickly to counter the damage. Sometimes a vital part of the response will be a legal one, and PR firms increasingly need to work closely with their colleagues in the law. But at other times the legal route may not be either the best or the quickest way to contain the threat. But this will depend on a bunch of different factors – scale, motive, accuracy and source being just a few. A PR firm with Reputation Protection skills will have a range of tactics it can deploy, both online and offline, usually faster than any legal process can be put in place. But often, the most effective response will be a broad spectrum one, using IT, PR and legal responses to re-establish control.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, and the professional PR practitioner needs to have at least a basic understanding of good privacy practice – sufficient at least to conduct an initial review of client vulnerabilities. They may be as secure as the Bank of England when they in the office, but what do they do when they are at home, or travelling the world. Just how secure is their wireless network at home? Do they use public networks when they travel? When they settle down for the evening in that charming Kuala Lumpur hotel, and they connect to the hotel network, just how private are they? Or, if you are Chancellor of a great European nation, should you really be spending hours every day texting on your insecure personal phone?

Of course, even if your personal privacy is absolutely watertight, that may not be enough, which was another point Keith Schilling made as I wrestled with my morning croissant: “Who knows what photos are being posted and stories told by the VIP's children to all their friends on Facebook?”

In fact, these days, anyone holding down a high profile job should have a proper Privacy Audit to check on potential vulnerabilities. It's hard to manage reputation if your every minor indiscretion, embarrassing faux pas or domestic issue is potentially out there on public view. At Chelgate we know enough to offer general guidelines, and to know whether you need one. But this really requires very expert capabilities which we don't pretend to have. But we know people who do, and that audit, and the strategies springing from it, need to form a cornerstone in any high sensitivity Reputation Protection programme.

Terence Fane-Saunders

PR in the Shadows

We keep a pretty low profile at Chelgate. Much of our work is quite confidential, and we say little about most of our assignments. But what we would never do is to represent a client or a cause to the public, or to any third party, without making it clear exactly whom we are representing. PR people will remember the fuss last year when Burson-Marsteller were secretly hired by Facebook to run an anonymous campaign against Google.

But now we seem have run up against a similar situation in a planning battle we are fighting in Yorkshire, and this suggests a style of PR that our profession really has to leave behind.

We are retained by commercial/property interests to fight plans to plonk a giant superstore on the edge of the beautiful little market town of Malton, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. This is one fight where my business interests and my heart are happily intertwined. I spent precious years in and around Malton watching my children grow up. Harm it at your peril!

The people of Malton are overwhelmingly against the plan (evidenced by market research) and the town council oppose it too. They know that it will suck the lifeblood out of the wonderful gaggle of little shops in the town. But the District council, who stand to benefit from a £5 million payment from the developer, have supported the plan. So much for localism! Selina Scott wrote two wonderful articles for the Telegraph and the Daily Mail warning of this threat to that lovely little town. Many others rallied to the cause.

Thanks to a successful legal challenge, the initial planning application (backed by the district council) was thrown out. But last month, the developer kicked off a new community consultation as a prelude to the submission of a new planning application. Hearts sank across Malton. Back to the barricades!

And then, coincidentally (?), last month also, a new campaign popped up, notionally promoting Malton: ‘All4Malton’, with Facebook, Twitter and a website too. At first glance, it simply looked like a supportive campaign to boost the town, with items about the Malton Food Festival, and the town's links to Charles Dickens. But it only takes a few moments to realise that half the items it carries are actually designed to promote the threatened development. Even items not specifically about the development are clearly designed to serve it. So, there are repeated references to parking problems in Malton, with readers being encouraged to send in their ‘Malton parking horror stories’. And guess what? Parking is one of the key claimed selling points being pushed by the developers. Another is the fact that the site will include a petrol station – so of course there's a box encouraging the public to tweet for lower petrol prices.

Our principal client in this assignment, the Fitzwilliam Estate, who own a great deal of property in Malton, and are desperately worried about this threat to the little town, is attacked and smeared (‘the Estate doing their usual scaremongering’), but nowhere, in any of all this aggressive propaganda is there any acknowledgement that it's not just an impartial initiative to promote Malton. We are not told who is behind it, who is publishing it, who is paying for it. It's an attack from the shadows.

I've no problem with a good, healthy publicity battle. In fact, I rather enjoy them, and of course we fight lots of them. But creepy little anonymous campaigns, hiding their true purpose and concealing the identities of the shadowy people who are pulling the strings, represent the squalid end of our profession. They probably also tell you a lot about the developer too.

At least Burson-Marsteller, which is a fundamentally decent and professional outfit, apologised, and recognised that this wasn't the way for professionals to behave. I have a feeling that whoever is behind this little enterprise will be much more reluctant.

Of course, I may be entirely wrong. This may all be the work of people who simply love Malton, and are entranced with the idea of a superstore on the edge of town; so entranced that they go to these great lengths to support their passion. In which case I am happy to apologise to all concerned. But I'm peering out of my Tanner Street window right now, looking out at our little park, and I can't see any sign of a single flying pig.

Terence Fane-Saunders



So, here we are again. Just over three years since outgoing MPs were secretly filmed making sleazy deals with undercover journalists posing as lobbyists, a virtually identical sting appears to have caught out even more parliamentarians.

In many ways, the offences allegedly committed this time round are even more egregious . Last time, outgoing MPs agreed to work for lobbyists once they were out of office . This recent sting apparently saw MPs and Peers agree to table questions, set up All-Party Parliamentary Groups, and otherwise abuse their position in exchange for payment.

It seems mad to me that anyone in Parliament who remembers the 1990s would willingly agree to table cash in exchange for questions; you’d think they would have realised that this wasn’t going to end well. But in any case, if these reports are indeed fair and accurate, (and perhaps we shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet), it seems that at least a few Parliamentarians felt, for whatever reason, that such behaviour was acceptable, or that they at least would not be caught.

All this has led to renewed calls from politicians and the media for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’, which, whilst predictable, is a bit of a non-sequitur , as not a single lobbyist – registered or not – was actually involved in this affair. Given that politicians were apparently the only people found to be misbehaving, one would logically assume that they would be the main targets for opprobrium and punishment.

Instead, while a few figures in the media and in Parliament have seen this as a renewed impetus for a ‘recall’ bill, or for more rigorous standards for parliamentarians’ conduct, most have focused their ire on lobbyists, and specifically on proposals for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’.

I have long been sceptical about the sense, usefulness, feasibility or desirability of a statutory register. I would like to think that the fact that the government has so far failed to implement one, as promised in the coalition agreement, points to the fact that some in Downing Street  agree.

In fact,  the term itself is not one I would ever ascribe to myself or any of my colleagues at Chelgate. As I’ve written before, the word “lobbyist” itself reeks of negative associations. The general public tend to think of lobbyists as “shady, rat-like creatures scuttling through the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, wheedling, inveigling, whispering and beguiling as they corrupt the processes of power on behalf of their paymasters.”

Beyond the superficial image problem, this view is simply factually inaccurate. Professional government relations is not and should never be confined to the ranks of full-time lobbyists. In fact, it’s very difficult to unpick PR from “lobbying”. It’s often only after we begin work for a client that we realise that we may need to engage with the political process in order to achieve their aims. If one of our account executives was not a “registered lobbyist” and was leading a project for a client, only for it become clear that some political engagement was necessary in order to achieve his client’s objectives, would he be obliged to bring everything to a halt and tell the client “sorry, I’m not a registered lobbyist, you’d better go find one”?

This problem would apply to many other firms, too. More traditional consumer PR firms, which do not consider themselves to be ‘lobbying’ outfits, may find themselves unable to provide the full range of services that their clients need, or else may need to re-skill and refocus on lobbying in order to make the cost and effort of registering worthwhile. Remember, the importance of MPs for our profession is not restricted to their ability to regulate or legislate. They are opinion leaders and vectors of information. They write articles, send letters to editors, make speeches all over the country (not just in parliament), offer media comment, take part in panel shows. They are mini media maelstroms, generating attention and shaping attitudes. So of course they will be legitimate audiences for PR professionals. How ridiculous to think they are so precious and susceptible to improper influence that only registered lobbyists might be allowed to brief them on anything.

But even specialist, full-time lobbyists recognise that few successful PA  campaigns can be based solely on targeting politicians. Any worthwhile Member of Parliament will allow his or her opinions to be shaped by a small but essential universe of information and opinion , including their constituents, the media, other experts and professionals. A “lobbying” campaign that takes no account of these other audiences and points of influence would be pretty crass, clumsy and likely to fail.  So the proper lobbyist is not a denizen of the Westminster shadows. He or she has to operate in the daylight of public opinion where arguments are made and challenged, information offered and tested. It’s a healthy process and one which enhances communication between Parliament and the rest of the country.

I also have doubts about the prospect that this statutory register would force firms to make all their clients public. But this doesn’t mean that I am in favour of secretive or underhand representation.  In circumstances where we are directly engaging with policymakers, elected officials, civil servants and the like, Chelgate always makes clear who we are representing. This is the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, and it simply makes sense if we are to engage with these stakeholders in a useful way.

But bull-headed supporters of the bill are pushing for a much broader disclosure requirement, which would require firms to disclose all of their clients, whether they are actively ‘lobbying’ for them or not. This is a seriously senseless  proposal, especially given the woolly thinking on how exactly lobbying should be defined.

The Commons committee looking into the statutory register last year sifted through myriad definitions of lobbying, and ultimately could not decide which one to use. If the legislation were to define lobbying too narrowly – say, as an individual employed by a firm, who makes direct professional contact with elected officials on behalf of a paying client – it would be far too easy to get around. It seems more likely that the government might opt to cast a wider net, including anyone – freelancers, in-house staff, agency staff – whose work involves directly engaging with parliamentarians or, crucially, advising or assisting clients on engagement with parliamentarians.

Some clients engage us when they are not facing an acute crisis or issue, but seek our services in developing a crisis management plan in case the need ever arises. The broad definition of lobbying that is currently attracting the most support, seems to mean that we would have to disclose our work for such clients, even when the work is entirely precautionary, and part of a broader plan in which direct political engagement may only be a minor part.

Chelgate, offers a specialist crisis and issues management service. Many clients who engage our services are facing sensitive issues that may their affect share price, consumer confidence, staff morale and brand image, among other variables. By  making public the fact that they have engaged a specialist in crisis management,  these firms may exacerbate the very crises they have engaged us to manage. That is why more than half of our clients ask us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But even without that NDA in place, we see no reason why private consultation with Chelgate should be a matter of public record

Such a drastic shake-up would perhaps be understandable, or even desirable, if unethical behaviour was found to be widespread throughout the PR industry. But that simply isn’t the case. We have seen a few politicians make tremendous errors in judgement, some acting with incredible stupidity and others with an apparent disregard for their obligations as parliamentarians. We have seen the media engage in underhand campaigns of entrapment which would never be permitted to the police, for example.  And yes, one or two slightly stupid PR and government relations professionals have boasted unconvincingly about their levels of access and influence. But there is really no evidence of a corrupt or malign public affairs profession in need of regulation and registration.  How politicians react to improper inducements from journalists pretending to be public affairs professionals has no bearing at all on our profession – any more than a pickpocket dressed as a priest would tell you anything about the clergy.

Some might argue that if these regulations had been in place beforehand, this latest scandal would not have happened: the MPs and Peers in question could have looked at the register and seen that these fake firms were not legitimate. These individuals’ apparent greed and disregard for public office would not have come to light. Politics would have continued as usual. But it seems strange and wrong-headed to apply onerous and unnecessary restrictions to our profession in order to prevent parliamentarians from abusing theirs. And you can be sure that the journalists concerned would have found a way to adapt their approach. Regulating the public affairs profession won’t protect politicians from themselves.

Instead of facing up to the problems within their own domain, some in politics and journalism have opted to go after a scapegoat. They are proposing unworkable changes that will fundamentally hurt the ability of businesses, NGOs and private individuals to make their case to their publics. They do nothing to stem the loss of trust in Parliament, or to sort out the problems in their own ranks.

If that is the lasting legacy of this scandal, expect to see history repeat itself before too long.

Terence Fane-Saunders