Perusing the latest edition of PR Week yesterday I came across a piece by Andrew Wilson about the need for campaigners to keep the UK in Europe to be ready to make a positive case to do so - and not fall into the trap of the 'No' campaign in the Scottish referendum last year, widely castigated for failing to make such a case north of the border. This advice comes hot on the heels of the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce, where speaker after speaker lined up to proclaim that leaving the EU would be "disastrous for British business" and would risk turning us into a "Ruritarian backwater".
I obviously share the view that leaving the European Union would be bad news for Britain (and for Europe). But this article was a timely reminder that we need a positive argument to be made for staying in the Union. It was also a reminder that whilst any campaign can have a hard, factual edge, every campaign, whether it is for a political goal or to improve a company's reputation or sell more of its products, needs to be engaging, warm and inspiring to be truly successful. In other words, asking consumers and the public to use their heads will only get you so far; in the end a successful campaign needs to appeal to the gut and the heart too.
A couple of years ago the film 'No' explored the successful campaign in Chile to persuade the public to vote in a referendum against the continued rule of General Pinochet. It tells the tale of how advertising execs in Santiago dispense with early approaches focused on criticising Pinochet and playing on fear, and instead build a campaign which centres on a vision of a happy and positive future for Chile after the dictator had gone. There are so many lessons here for campaigners for Britain to stay in the EU in particular and for communications folk in general. The same lessons can be seen in many other campaigns, including Kennedy's bid for the White House and Blair's first election to Number 10. And yet we keep on failing to heed what we should have learned.
The Scottish referendum provides one example of how negative campaigning has failed to engage the public; the putative European referendum risks being the same. And we are living through perhaps the greatest example of negativity and disengagement on record, as the parties in the current British election focus relentlessly on the sour and the negative and turn off the electorate every single day. At the end of this campaign I am pretty certain I will know what I am voting against, but Labour and the Conservatives are united in their failure to tell me what I am voting for.
The debate over the future of the EU, whether that debate is taking place in the UK or anywhere else in Europe, deserves better. Europeans need something to believe in and something to love. All of us who believe in the EU, particularly those of us involved in communications, have to do much, much better than we have so far.
It is not enough to point out how daft it would be to leave the Union when, for example, we export more (at least until recently) to Ireland than all of the BRICs together, interesting and disturbing though that is. We have to also focus on good news, on what those Eurocrats have done for us. And we have to make clear, again and again, that the answer is a very great deal.
Start from the top: peace. Efforts to pacify and unify Europe have been repeated several times over the centuries. The Romans led the way, and their baton was picked up by the Holy Roman Empire and later by Napoleon, albeit that L'Empereur had a uniquely war-like way of enforcing peace and of propagating the benefits of his Continental System. The European Union has been the most successful attempt by far. It may seem fanciful to imagine Europeans now taking up arms against one another, but look at the former Yugoslavia just a few years ago, and at the hot and cold conflicts in our neighbourhood: in the Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Libya and elsewhere - and then look at the EU. The Union has promoted the creation of mutual interests, the sharing of cultural norms, the exchange of ideas, and that has brought greater stability to our region than we have ever seen before.
That same process of allowing ideas and people and trade to flow freely has brought wider benefits too. It has allowed all of us to enjoy the richness of European culture; it has enabled the spark of creativity that comes with learning from new perspectives and diverse ideas; and it has created a common ground across the whole Continent, based on a broad acceptance of capitalism with a safety net, of a liberal consensus about social issues, and of the importance of totems such as free speech and tolerance. We would throw away these emblems of civilisation at our peril.
These are the bigger issues. More immediately the EU has been at the forefront of promoting issues such as safety at work, and a better environment for everyone - and it has of course freed up trade. Facile stories about curvy bananas overlook the ways in which the EU has driven economic development. Populist and unsophisticated headlines about immigration fail to take account of the contribution free movement of labour has made to improved productivity. Set aside the fact that at the macro level the EU has created a benign and safe Continent: on a day-to-day basis it has led to a prosperous, thriving and simply better world for us all. Our message must be: yes, Europe can be improved, but here is what it has done for us already - and here too are all the benefits it will bring in future.
The lessons for those of us who believe in the EU are the same as for anyone behind a campaign on any subject or for any brand. They are: don't be negative, and don't tell people how stupid they would be if they make the wrong choice. Where reform is needed, don't just focus on what needs to be better. Instead tell your audience what has been and will be a success. Be courageous. Create a vision, and engage and excite your audience. In short, go for the heart as well as the head. And so make people love your product, whether it is the latest widget or the flawed, brilliant and ambitious project that is the EU.