24 Oct 2016

Is there any legitimacy in using fear as a PR method?

Nick Ringrow – Account Manager at Spreckley

There are some big changes going on in the political world at the moment, but the word that keeps cropping up is “fear”. ‘Project Fear’ played its part in helping the Scottish vote to remain part of the UK in the Independence Referendum in 2014. ‘Project Fear’ once again reared its head for both sides in the Brexit referendum. Across the pond, Donald Trump’s fear mongering is galvanising a whole country to vote, one way or the other.

The notion of fear is a very human one, targeting both the individual and the collective. Take Brexit: both sides used ‘Project Fear’ to try and sway voters to their cause. Remainers looked at the financial implications and warned of another recession, while Leavers turned to immigration controls and the prospect of our green and pleasant lands being swamped by refugees and Europeans. In amongst all of this, the facts got lost and people voted with a certain element of fear. I know fear played a part in my vote. Fearful of what leaving would mean for the future of the UK, for me, my friends and family. Now only time will tell if those fears were unfounded.

Trump. A master of fear mongering in the US. Swathes of Central Americans coming to take over the United States, ‘corrupt’ Hillary and her fingers in the wallets of Wall Street and on and on it goes. Facts take a stage dive when you play on people’s fears. But is fear a legitimate tactic in the great public relations game?

Fear, accompanied by its Friends Uncertainty and Doubt (affectionately called FUD) has the nasty habit of running its own course and can sometimes get out of control. Once something is out of control, it’s very hard to get it back. This is the last thing you want from a PR campaign. As anybody who has worked in PR or marketing knows, most campaigns are planned to a certain level of meticulous detail. The dates, the messages, the interviews, the KPIs. Spurious statements that are used to play off people’s emotions have a habit of turning very nasty very quick and can wreck the best laid plans. I’m sure Donald’s PR gurus are busy trying to put out all the fires he has started with his outlandish statements (and if not they should be). Vote Leave played on our fears of a crumbling NHS and had to backtrack on their statement that we would get our £350 million a week back to spend on the NHS. Whilst fear might be an impactful way to get your message across to a lot of people, it should be seen as the lowest type of influence. Legitimate statements, wrapped in a coat of FUD have a dangerous power to them.