What can communicators learn from Brexit?

How to expose ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ and other tall stories

Whichever way you voted and whatever you think the best course of action is now, one thing we can hopefully all agree on is that there was misinformation. Lots of it. From either side. Facts got twisted and repeated until the original source, credible or not, was a distant memory and we were left with popular and often-quoted, but totally false ‘facts’.

Facts like these spread quickly and people make important decisions based on them. Another example: it is now almost universally accepted that vaccines do not cause autism, but because of one piece of inaccurate and unscientific research, parents have been querying whether to vaccinate their children for the last 15 years. This – like the EU referendum vote – has had serious consequences.

So what do you do if a popular myth impacts your product, brand or company? Just show the other side of the argument? Give people the facts which prove that the myth is just that, a myth?  Unfortunately not.  This assumes that we believe myths because of we lack information, but it’s not that simple. How we process information and change our views is a complex mental process and once we buy into a myth it is difficult to correct.

For years, doctors fought fire with fire and explained why their research proved there was no link between vaccines and autism. But it was too late. Discussing the myth actually made it worse, entrenching it in people’s minds. Repetition and familiarity actually make people more likely to believe that something is true. As counter-intuitive as it seems, it’s better to avoid discussing the un-truth while correcting it and instead focus on the message you want to make. A common mistake is to headline the article with the very un-truth you are trying to expose.  This just spreads the myth further. Start instead with the core facts you are trying to communicate. If you must mention the un-truth precede it with very clear explicit warnings and only after your key message.

It’s tempting to provide a number of counter-arguments – just to prove how wrong the myth is. Resist! People are most likely to accept and remember simple information. In this case less is more. Stick to three points maximum and end on the strong and simple message that you want people to remember instead of the un-truth.

We all like messages that support our view of the world and we are more likely to be receptive to messages if they are aligned to our values. Is it possible to frame your message so it’s less threatening to the audience’s values? For example, when governments need to raise taxes they are more likely to be accepted if they are called offsets or duties purely because the word tax challenges many voters’ views.

When we hear a myth for the first time, we build a mental structure around what we have been told. If you take this away by destroying the myth without providing a new model, it is in our nature to believe the old myth rather than deal with the uncertainty. We must provide an alternative explanation to remove the uncertainty. This was one of the reasons why the vaccine myth prevailed for so long as nobody knew why more and more children were being diagnosed with autism. The jury is still out on the reasons for this increase but it is just one of the reasons why it took so long to change the tide of public opinion.

In summary, if you are faced with a myth you want to expose:

  • First, focus on the facts you want people to remember rather than the un-truth.
  • Second, any mention of the un-truth should be preceded by explicit warnings to explain that what is following is not true.
  • Third, consider how you frame your statement and find a way to discuss it so it is consistent with the audience’s worldview.
  • Finally, provide an alternative explanation for the original misinformation. Correcting myths is difficult and you are more likely to be able to correct the myth among the undecided and those who are not as firmly decided. Act quickly before the myth become entrenched.

Have you ever said that lightning doesn’t strike twice? Not true. The Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times per year. See – there are myths everywhere.