In PR we talk about reaching out and cutting through. We craft messaging that will engage that poised and docile mob we call ‘the public’. Well, if this morning’s result has shown us anything it’s that this pursuit is utter rubbish. Any illusion of commons threads that bind together our diverse country has given way to intractable division. Communicators speak of audiences as if they picture their publics as attentive theatre-goers sitting down to watch a show. In truth, they live in lead-encased silos through which no views contrary to their own will enter. Reason be damned.
London overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU. Of course it did. London is one of the world’s great cities, heaving with life, culture, ideas, talent. 48.1% of the country decided they’d had enough of that. The outcome is a repudiation -loud and clear- from the rest of England of the forces that have made London great. True, the benefits of globalisation have been distributed unevenly. The forces that transformed the derelict mills of Shoreditch into a thriving tech hub are the same forces that have turned the highstreets in the Midlands into ghost towns of bookies and Greggs and that have snatched away whole industries and jobs for life.
The EU is not the source of globalisation but one way of channelling it. Life outside of the club is a rejection of the selective distribution of benefits rather than a serious way of tackling the concerns. The Little Englander has been unleashed from his continental shackles. Like Eric Idle’s reluctant traveller fed up with foreign things there is no stopping the mutterings of the suburban baby boomer. Karl Marx believed it took destitution to spur on the revolution. It turns out actually it takes a paid-off mortgage and a gold-plated pension to fire up the reckless radicalism.
Despite all the calls for unity that we will hear over the next few days, it is no longer possible to talk to the populace as one. Division is not an aberration but the normative state. We are seeing this with Trump’s outflanking of the Grand Old Party. We are seeing this in the rise of populist right wing parties across Europe- each one placing their culturally specific complaint in the same language of us the people against them the elite.
The way we communicate has to account for the fact that our words will only half succeed. No delicate phrasing, no appeals to a diminishing centre group. To be heard is based on how outlandishly we fail. Both Trump and Farage outrage the airways and gobble up the limelight precisely because they have torn up the script. Bleeding hearts are mortified, which is all part of the fun.
None of this is succour to those of us who want to live in a public sphere that is respectful and open. For a variety of sociological, political and technological reasons the way we talk to each other has become increasingly atomised. This will only get more insular. The public is a many-headed hydra- bland catch-all gestures are cast into the pit of Hades.