The celebrities preaching about the referendum could be doing more harm than good

Is rolling out celebrities to influence people to vote going to lead to a backlash as Irish people don’t like to be told how to vote asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir

I LIVE in Dingle, which — if you stop to think about it — is a strange place to live. Many of the people who live here are the same as those you’d find in any small Irish town or stretch of rural countryside. They’re conservative minded. Thirty years ago, they’d have been regular churchgoers whose lives were controlled by the clergy.

Yet Dingle is a cosmopolitan place too. I once stopped to count the different nationalities I could number among my friends and acquaintances and stopped somewhere around 27.

Because I was born here, I have a foot in both camps, which can be disorienting. It’s certainly meant that I’ve had a strange perspective on the campaign for same-sex marriage.

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Most of my liberal-minded friends are all for this change to the constitution. Why wouldn’t we be, they ask. Isn’t it all about equality? I’d fallen into the trap of thinking most right-minded people were of this opinion. The media in general appear to have done so too, with polls putting the yes side miles ahead for months now.

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That was until I spoke to members of my extended family. What about the children, they asked? It’s not about children, I responded. It’s about equality. Don’t they have civil marriage, they retorted. Isn’t that enough?

As celebrities such as Robbie Keane and Brian O’Driscoll come out in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, I wonder if they are doing more harm than good. Are they achieving what they set out to achieve? Or are they merely underlining the rural/urban, older/younger divide that forms the fault line of this referendum?

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PR experts beg to differ. Cork-based PR consultant Manus O’Callaghan thinks celebrities have a role to play. “People have always been open to accepting guidance from people they admire, especially if the issues are complex and don’t impact directly on their own lives,” he says. “People relate to other people and will be influenced by celebrities.”

Julian Davis, Director of Creative Strategy with Fleishman Hillard in Dublin, sees the referendum campaign as a marketing exercise.

“Celebrities are influencers,” he says. “We increasingly look to them to help us make purchasing decisions or in this case to help us decide how to vote. In the past we looked to institutions — the church and politicians — but our trust for them no longer exists so now we look to our peers and celebrities.”

Anthony Garvey of Quinn Garvey PR in Tralee thinks this lack of trust is precisely why it was a good idea to enlist celebrity support. “Before that, the only people coming out for the yes side were politicians and politicians put people off,” he says. “A united band of politicians puts everybody off.”

But does the type of celebrity matter? Should the ‘yes’ side focus less on Robbie Keane and more on the likes of Mary McAleese who might hold more sway over the conservative base? Julian Davis thinks the ‘yes’ side have achieved a good balance.

“In choosing celebrities, you have to be sure they resonate with the people you are trying to influence,” he says. “Someone who appeals to a 20-year-old in Dublin will not appeal to a 50-year-old in rural Ireland. It’s about knowing your audience.”

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Anthony Garvey has a different take. He thinks the ‘yes’ side should bring out more young celebrities and focus less on people like Mary McAleese. “She might hoover up a few undecided voters and will definitely do no harm,” he says.

“But this referendum isn’t about persuading people. The ‘yes’ side should be doing all they can to mobilise people who are going to vote ‘yes’. Forget about trying to convince the ‘no’ side and get ‘yes’ voters to the polls on the day. If more young celebrities will get them to do that, then do it.”

All the PR professionals think the two sides are closer than the media would have us believe. “There’s a shy pollster effect,” says Manus O’Callaghan. “Many who are going to vote ‘no’ are not admitting it, which means the no vote will be much bigger than polls are predicting.”

There’s also a sense of people feeling railroaded into voting ‘yes’. So many public figures have come out for the ‘yes’ vote that people feel they have no option but to say they’re voting ‘yes’, up until the moment they tick ‘no’ on the ballot paper.

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That’s what Anthony Garvey thinks. “I’ve an awful feeling the campaign is slipping away from the ‘yes’ side,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence that people are saying one thing and

voting another. We saw it in the UK where they were too embarrassed to say they were voting Tory.” He advises the ‘yes’ side to spend the remainder of the campaign focussing on ‘yes’ voters. “Lay on buses to get them to polling stations if you have to,” he says. “And don’t get drawn into arguments about surrogacy or other issues that don’t relate to the referendum.

Make it all about love and equality. Get the celebrities to say that too. It’s a numbers game at this stage.”

It’s a numbers game that the ‘yes’ side may have been playing slightly wrong. It’s clear from speaking to PR professionals and people in Dingle, few people are being swayed by arguments in this referendum.

Instead, the results will be determined by where you stand along the fault lines of a changing Ireland. Are you rural or urban? Young or old? Conservative and church abiding or liberal and interested in extending equality? No celebrity can answer these questions for you.

Visit our special Referendum 2015 section for all the latest news and analysis

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Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s. https://www.facebook.com/PopsceneCork/You've Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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