With a few days to go before the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment, John Meagher asks communications experts why the pro-life and pro-choice campaigns have largely failed to convert the Don’t Knows
As a communications obsessive and politics and social affairs anorak, Johnny Fallon has taken a great deal of interest in the campaigning on both sides of the fence when it comes to Friday’s abortion referendum, one seen by many as the most significant to be put to the people in a generation.
But if the account manager with leading PR and communications agency Carr Communications was writing a report card for both the Yes and No contingents, it would be festooned with with criticism.
Both sides, he believes, have struggled to communicate their stance to the electorate as well as they might. “It’s been very disjointed,” he says. “Especially from the Yes side. What should be a much clearer campaign, feels very confused.”
The abortion debate has characterised Irish life for generations and stepped up several notches following the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. But ever since May 25 was chosen as the date where the option to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution — that guaranteeing equal rights for mother and unborn child — the Yes and No campaigns have stepped up a gear.
But while it may appear as though the country is divided into trenchant Yes and No camps, opinion polls have shown that a large swathe of the population are undecided.
The latest survey, published by the Irish Times on Thursday, shows that 17pc are ‘don’t know’ and a further 2pc declined to answer which way they would vote. That follows a Sunday Independent poll from a fortnight ago that revealed that 18pc were undecided. It’s a significant portion of the electorate for both camps to target. But are they doing enough?
Preaching to the converted
Fallon believes that both sides continue to fall into the trap of speaking to the converted — particularly on social media — and he believes the Yes side, in particular, have become complacent. “I feel the Yes side got off to a great start but there’s a lack of freshness to it now. The next stage of the campaign doesn’t seem to have been planned, the ‘What’s the next big message that we have to get across?’ It seems everything was laid out in the beginning and it’s just ‘reiterate, reiterate’. But the No side are feeding new messaging in.”
In recent weeks political parties, especially Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, have leant their weight to the Yes side but Fallon believes some of it might feel opportunistic. “Have they piggybacked on this for their own needs?” he ponders. “You might even accuse Sein Féin as using posters of their leader in their Yes messaging as a ‘Welcome to our new leader’. Mary Lou McDonald might feel differently.”
The doorstep battle
Fallon believes that with canvassing still fundamental to Irish politics, both have done well, but especially the Yes side — and they have made sure to go into hostile territory.
“The doorsteps is where the battle will be won and there’s an awful lot of Yes activism on the ground, including in places like Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford where they mightn’t have been for previous referendums. There are lots of young people involved and they’re very engaged.”
Dublin-based communications consultant Zoe Healy has worked on political campaigns in both Ireland in the UK and she was a media advisory strategist for Prime Minister Theresa May in the early 2000s. She believes “the Yes side have been better at talking to the middle ground” but has not been impressed by their strategy. “They should have been much better at it,” she says. “It’s been very disjointed.”
She says No stole a march when it came to mobilising its media strategy and argues that as several of the primary spokespeople for No had mobilised before not least during the marriage equality referendum of three years ago, they appear to have been strongly united on the abortion question.
“Where Yes appears to be very strong is in the area of canvassing,” she says. “There are a lot of people on the ground, particularly in Dublin — but is their message getting out to more conservative parts of the country? Are they reaching the places what might be expected to vote no?
As a resident in what’s traditionally regarded as the country’s most liberal constituency, Dún Laoghaire, Healy says she has been canvassed several times by Yes, but not at all by the other side.
The debate continues to rage online every day, but she believes both sides end up talking to their own people. “I don’t think social media is a forum where undecided people are going to get the sort of information they might need.”
A coarse debate
She also believes the debate has coarsened to such an extent that some people are afraid “to put their heads above the parapet and express their views, especially if their opinion isn’t completely black or white”.
Healy believes the No posters featuring stark imagery and even starker wording fail to sway the undecided. “I think they’re too aggressive and they antagonise people, especially those with young children who may be asking them what these posters mean.”
But another communications expert, who has worked on political campaigns in the past, believes the graphic No posters are more effective than some on the other side might imagine. “It galls me to say this, as I’d be a yes voter through and through, but the six-month poster may well have encouraged those who are wavering to vote no.” He is referring to the widely seen poster which features a drawing of a baby in the womb with the strapline, ‘If killing an unborn baby at six months bothers you, vote no’.
“I think there are a lot of people who would support abortion in the case of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, and are baulking at what’s being proposed. I’m not sure the Yes side are doing enough to convince that cohort of voters to vote yes or to adequately argue against the No campaign when they talk about abortion-on-demand.
“And, the No side have been effective in getting across the idea that unrestrictive terminations in the first 12 weeks really is abortion-on-demand. It’s a very loaded phrase, especially in this country, and it has strong emotional appeal.”
He believes Yes has lacked focus “largely because there have been so many organisations with a vested interest in this” and he says there are signs of complacency. “The early polls showed Yes had a very strong lead — almost unassailable — but the more recent ones have shown a huge narrowing of that gap. “It’s hard not to get the sense that sometimes they simply shut down whenever the No side score a hit against them. In their efforts to be restrained and not — as they would see it — stoop to the level of the other, they’re failing to get their points across.”
Jane Suiter of the School of Communications at Dublin City University and the director of the Institute for Future Media believes both sides have failed to communicate to the electorate as well as they might.
“The messaging from the Yes side has been very abstract,” she says, “and I don’t think they’re particularly effective. That’s especially the case with the posters — for the most part, they’ve gingerly approached the issue.”
By contrast, the No side has employed veritable shock tactics in their posters and are somewhat redolent of the ‘Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy’ billboards that went up during the 1995 Divorce Referendum. She believes there is a possibility that these emotive posters may resonate with undecideds who have not been following the nuances of the debate and what’s being proposed. “The posters are a shortcut to them,” she says, “and the No side knows that.
A number of straplines have become part of the vernacular of this referendum but the one she believes is most effective is the Yes side’s appeal to ‘Trust Women’.
“It’s a simple message but one that appeals to the idea of personal choice,” she says. “And it’s an interesting choice of phrase when one considers that in this country, historically, a lot of the culture is not to trust women.”
It’s much more effective, she believes, than another popular mantra: ‘My Body, My Choice’. “It might be too provocative for the middle ground.”
Zoe Healy agrees and believes such messaging — and the ‘Stop Policing Our Bodies’ line from the feminist socialist network, Rosa — “won’t appeal to certain demographics and might provoke a negative reaction”.
As the campaign enters its final, critical days she says television will become increasingly important. On Monday night, a huge audience — 650,000 people — turned into Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ at some point in the debate. The fractious nature of the exchanges angered many and while Suiter says it will probably have not aided the undecided, “the No side will probably be happier” with how it went.
“There was very rowdy behaviour in the audience and I don’t think it was in the public interest — you had a lowest common denominator approach and the Yes side would have felt it was a very difficult environment in which to get their message across.”
She says it is impossible to gauge how effective the online campaigns have been at this juncture although she believes it is intriguing that the No side reacted far less favourably to the decision of Google, effective from last week, to prohibit pro-life and pro-choice ads. “Their ads tended to be provocative and emotional,” she says, and the campaign might have hoped to bypass what it perceives to be a biased media and to target people directly through these ads.
Suiter says Twitter and Facebook will have been of little use when it comes to targeting the undecided. “Almost everyone on social media speaks to their own side,” she says. “It’s an echo chamber.”
Johnny Fallon agrees. “Some of the stuff they’re arguing about on social media is time-wasting,” he says. “The vast majority of people are influenced by friends and family, not by a tweet or Facebook post.”