Brexit vote

Why Britain’s pro-EU campaign is unlikely to make Emma Thompson its new spokesperson

The starting gun has been fired for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. And so has the battle of the soundbites.  Pretty much any politician with strong views has come out with their quotable phrases on why Britain should chuck the towel in or stay a member of the club.

War of words begins

The soundbite onslaught has begun as UK’s In-Out referendum date announced

Amid all the uncertainty over what will happen, one thing you can be sure of is that we’ll all feel well and truly bludgeoned by the media onslaught come polling day on June 23rd.

Status quo and crumbs

Here’s a quick flavour of what we’ve had so far.  For the ‘out-ers’, on Cameron’s deal we’ve had this from Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan: ‘Britain banged the table and aggressively demanded the status quo’  

Meanwhile, the Chairman of ‘Out’ campaign group Leave. EU Richard Tice has clearly been watching The Great British Bake Off and knows he’s onto a winner with a culinary metaphor: ‘Cameron promised half a loaf and came home with crumbs’.

For the Government, both David Cameron and George Osborne have been resorting to a less flashy but very effective tricolon (Osborne in particular is a dab hand at these rules of three). We’ve seen both arguing that Britain is ‘Stronger, safer, better off in the EU’.


By Garry Knight - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Emma Thompson’s humorous comments were rather too quotable

But it was another soundbite that got a less obvious face into trouble last week. Actress, Emma Thompson, found herself at the centre of a Eurosceptic media feeding frenzy by telling a Berlin press conference that it would be ‘madness’ for Britain to leave the EU and that she would be voting to stay in.  Strong language in its own right and a sentiment that many ‘In-ers’ will doubtlessly applaud.  However, the reason why I doubt the pro ‘Stronger In’ campaign will be appointing Ms Thompson as their new spokesperson is that she then committed the cardinal sin of making a joke about Britain as a country and ended up being attacked as anti-British.

Here’s what she actually said: (Britain is): ‘A tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe; a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island.’

Soundbite sizzle

From a media trainer’s perspective, this kind of quote is dynamite and goes right to the top of our sizzle scale. It’s visual, emotive and plays beautifully with ideas around British stereotypes.  It is also perfect clickbait (as the subsequent media storm confirmed).

However, from a campaign PR perspective, here’s what I believe would have been the pro side’s considered response:  …….gaaaaaaah.

And this, unfortunately, is due to the fact that when it comes to the EU debate the sure-fire way to get the wrong kind of headlines is to offer any kind of comment that could be interpreted as anti-British.  The eurosceptics and the media love this kind of quote because it plays deep into the sovereignty, identity and independence frames that are so effective for pushing anti-EU buttons quickly.

Clearly, anyone should be entitled to say whatever they want about Britain and be free to make jokes without this kind of outcry.  And the debate badly needs more people outside politics to come out and talk about why being in the EU does or doesn’t matter beyond the Westminster bubble.

But, with the British public complaining that they don’t have enough information about why being in the EU matters (or doesn’t), spokespeople for the pro side already have their work cut out simply to talk about the benefits in a clear and concrete way.  Their best chance of doing this is to make sure they don’t fall into the framing trap and lay themselves open to accusations (ill-founded or otherwise) of a lack of patriotism.


Emma Thompson photo by Gary Knight on Flickr by CC 2.0

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