David Singleton: David Davis' 'Mad Max' speech was a double whammy PR disaster
The Brexit secretary's main achievement was to get people talking about how much of a disaster Brexit might be.
In a crowded field, one of the worst adverts to air on British TV recently could well be the latest effort from estate agency Purple Bricks.
The ad sees an angry father of the bride using his wedding speech to rant at his son-in-law for telling him that Purple Bricks are online only. It follows another equally uninspiring ad in which a balding businessman pours milk on his head after realising that he had the wrong impression about the estate agency.
According to the voiceover, the ads are supposed to stress “the misery you feel when you spent thousands on commission but got nothing more from your money”. But for the casual viewer, they just serve to draw a link between Purple Bricks and misery. And middle-aged white men.
Similarly, the Brexit secretary's big speech in Vienna saw a middle-aged white man stressing something miserable.
In his address to Austrian business leaders, David Davis argued that a post-Brexit world will not be one in which society has collapsed because of war and a shortage of resources. Or as Davis put it, Britain will not be "plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction" after it leaves the European Union.
Bafflingly, the Davis operation ensured that the Mad Max line made it into all the headlines by pre-briefing it to lobby journalists the night before. The investable result was a host of news stories focused on whether or not Brexit would really be a terrible disaster, much mockery on social media and a piece on the BBC’s Newsbeat site about “What a Mad Max Britain would look like”. And not a positive message in sight.
In his speech, the Brexit secretary went on to talk up Brexit with various positive messages. He highlighted the great things that Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are all supposedly doing when it comes to Brexit. He also set out two new principles that will underpin the future economic agreement. But he need not have bothered because the headlines had already been written and there was no room left for the positive stuff.
The Davis operation made an elementary error by devoting their best soundbite to such a negative scenario. What’s not clear is whether they knew the Mad Max line would make the headlines and unwisely went with it anyway. Or whether they were naive enough to think that journalists would bury the line in the sixth paragraph and instead go in on the Brexit secretary's comments about how the principle of mutual trust, underpinned by robust mechanisms, can reduce trade friction.
Writing on Twitter, one experienced speechwriter accused the Davis operation of "bad speechwriting” while one veteran corporate PR man called it “cack-handed comms”. Which amounts to a double whammy. The only way it could have been worse would have been if Davis had started ranting at member of the audience or pouring milk on his head.
Picture by: Ian Forsyth/PA Wire/PA Images