This month we witnessed one of those rare events in the UK - a referendum. Allan Biggar explains how public information campaigns are used to raise large scale awareness and change mindsets

On the 5 May, we experienced a very rare phenomenon in the political culture of the UK. The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was only the second time ever a plebiscite has been held in this country. Used by politicians for only the most significant decisions that affect the UK and its unwritten constitution, the referendum is a political tool designed to reach the widest possible audience, and also has the capacity to create high drama and surprise results.

However, the AV referendum created little drama and for most of us, the ‘No’ result was not a surprise. The disappointment was that the referendum campaign felt distinctly lack lustre and failed to engage the public at large.

There were, in fact, three campaigns — the campaign by the Electoral Commission to raise public awareness of the vote, plus the two campaigns led by the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps. With an estimated combined expenditure of £200m, a lot of money was thrown at a public information campaign. The Electoral Commission alone sent out 27.8 million information booklets on the referendum and elections — one to every UK household. It was supported by a nationwide advertising campaign on television and radio. And the net result was a turnout of 42%.

The failure of this campaign shouldn’t distract from the role of public education campaigns and their influence. Done well, they have a considerable capability to inform a diverse range of audiences and affect enormous change.

Information campaigns are nothing new. The Reformation that swept across Europe in the 1500s was fuelled by an information campaign brought to life by means of the printing press which had been recently developed. The Reformation campaign and its core ideas of change were disseminated by means of printed material delivered through a network of over 200 printing centres in Europe.

In later years the Victorians became adept at running campaigns to promote the virtues of being a colonial power and communicating the civilising values that the British were taking to the colonies. It was important to ensure the general public understood the tangible benefits of its overseas expansion in terms of trade, as well as being positioned as part of the great education mandate that the Victorians embraced culminating in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.

More recently public education campaigns have been deployed by Government and lobbies alike to promote a range of causes and issues. Notably, and where they add the most value perhaps, is on promoting health awareness and changing behaviours to improve well-being. The famous AIDS advertising campaign the Government ran in the 1980s was criticised for stigmatising sufferers of the condition but remains widely credited at having changed the course and reach of the disease among the British public.

The last decade saw significant expenditure on campaigns that addressed food safety, breast cancer and road safety. Drawing on a mix of visual and print, television and radio, advertising and PR consultancies have benefitted from the splash of campaigns. And they’ve served a purpose; fewer road traffic accidents and reduced incidences of breast cancer deaths can point both to both advances in technology/medicine but also greater awareness, and in the case of early disease, earlier diagnosis.

The challenge facing the Government now is how, in the age of austerity, how it can continue ensuring its messages about public health and safety continue to be disseminated with few resources. We’ll likely see a shift away from expensive advertising and direct mail to cheaper services such as public relations.

Public information campaigns play an important role in educating, informing and affecting change. It’s just a shame that the vote for electoral reform proved to be such a shoddy public education campaign.

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