Chapter 2
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A Five-step Crisis Communications Guide

Step 1 – Audit the Context

Start by gathering all the relevant information to build a strong foundation. Diagnose, classify and monitor potential vulnerabilities that can be impacted by false information. Promote an enquiring environment regarding relationships with your internal and external stakeholders, as well as your ongoing connection to the media.


Identify potential risks
  • Conduct a SWOT-type analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) to identify vulnerabilities and classify them according to risk level. Explore areas including how fake news can impact the management of an election; what sites or publications are promoting disinformation; which individuals are responsible.
  • How would fake news affect your environment and ability to execute your mission of conducting a secure, transparent and efficient election?
  • Evaluate to what degree the false information might affect the election process and all of its elements.
  • After identifying risks and potential vulnerabilities, prioritize the most damaging issues and assess the potential consequences.
  • Keep in mind that not all risks can be anticipated, so having an adaptable, flexible plan is critical to responding quickly and effectively.


Identify key audiences

To ensure that communication channels remain open and functional, it’s important to maintain and nurture relationships with all election stakeholders before, during and after an election. Keep in mind that these relationships have to be kept current and should embrace a win-win spirit. Sharing information, in the form of infographics, videos or tables, is a good way to develop mutually beneficial relationships. Be mindful of the needs and requests of your stakeholders, including:

  • Voters: Communicate with your voters via social media, emails, regular mail and statements by public officials. Establish a single point of contact (customer service) to provide a reliable channel to engage with voters. It provides you with an opportunity to hear first-hand what is of interest or concern to voters, and it establishes a higher level of trust. When false information of any kind reaches voters, you will be able to quickly address it and monitor their reactions, thus providing some context in determining your next course of action.
  • Journalists and editors: Journalists and editors are important resources when dealing with misinformation, particularly fake news. They cannot only help with fact-checking and reporting your version, but they are often the first to hear of fake news. Journalists play a critical role in shaping your office’s reputation, good or bad. It is important that you actively maintain your relationships with journalists even in non-election periods.
  • Influencers: Certain individuals have a significant amount of influence through various channels, including the internet, social media or broadcast media, or as prominent voices in their communities. Being aware of election or political influencers means being able to measure and monitor the action and shared content among their followers.
  • Political parties and campaigns: Candidates and political parties are important stakeholders that have a vested interest in election systems. You will need to have a continuous and robust, but neutral, relationship before, during and after each election cycle. Mapping and monitoring political figures is imperative.
  • Federal, state, and local elections communications counterparts: It is advantageous to have a comprehensive list of election organizations and associations with which to coordinate messaging and outreach to ensure best practices and accurate information sharing.
  • Policymakers: They provide support to EMBs and can help share your message.
  • Law enforcement: Sometimes fake news will activate the need for law enforcement, so keeping them informed is important to maintaining your ability to administer an election.
  • Third-party interest groups: These are groups that raise awareness and advocate certain positions, some that support your mission and some that don’t. The more reliable ones do important work sharing fact-checked information.


Assess the current media environment
  • Assemble a rapid response team: A rapid response team should be put in place to identify any form of false information beginning to circulate and address it as quickly as possible.
    • Some tools to monitor digital news outlets include Google Alerts, Talkwalker, Cision and Meltwater. These tools provide reports detailing the conversation in the digital world.
    • Some tools to monitor social media include Hootsuite and TweetDeck.
  • Define success: Use available information and analysis from previous election cycles to produce a strategy and plan that best meets your needs.
  • Monitor disinformation: Continuous monitoring and active engagement is critical to your ability to correct and neutralize false information before it goes viral. Useful tools include media monitoring, social media analysis and public opinion research.
  • Use available resources: Identify and utilize existing tools to monitor and address misinformation. Use Facebook or Google if the platform is being used to advance a negative meme or post. Facebook even has a program to allow people to flag fake news.
    • Consider possible alliances based on other elections case studies. For example, during the Brazil 2018 Elections and the 2018 US Midterm Elections, Facebook established a dedicated office or “Election War Room” to identify, monitor and fight fake news.
    • Another helpful resource is the Communications Plan template “In Case of an Election Cyber Incident” by The Belfer Center, which you could use for more insight, or “The Campaign Cybersecurity Playbook” for campaign professionals.
73 percent of Americans

FACT: 73% of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today.

Source: 2018 American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy – Gallup/Knight Foundation

3 out of 4 people

FACT: More than 77% of Americans believe that major traditional television and newspaper media outlets report fake news.

Source: 2017 testimony by Facebook’s general counsel (via USA Today)

Step 2 – Develop a Crisis Communications Plan

Dive in. The creation of an action plan, ready-to-use policies, materials and valuable information sources will be key to countering false information if a communications crisis arises. Additionally, developing the plan gives your team hands-on experience improving their ability to respond quickly and effectively.


Identify communications goals, messages and channels
  • Explain the purpose of the plan and how to use it: Emphasize that when addressing false information, team members must ensure accuracy and sourcing, and that the information is appropriately vetted and disseminated.
  • Establish an internal communications protocol: Create and share policies. Before an election, promote a crisis-ready culture. Make sure that communications staff and organizational officers are trained in crisis communications, with exercises specifically geared to elections communications. Remember to make all of your staff feel valued, and assure them that their work (even if not directly related to the crisis response) is critical to success and to building trust.
  • Messages and channels should be timely: Real-time response is critical to diffusing the impact of false information. These responses must be useful, informative, responsive and sincere.


Outline a clear crisis management workflow

When false information is detected, swift action is crucial.

  • Communications process workflow: Draw a clear chain of command in your manual. Outline who will manage the crisis response, who will serve as spokesperson, and who will manage day-to-day crisis communications during an incident.
  • Rapid response:
    • Determine the timeframe for communications from the incident response team.
    • Consider whether you need to establish a dedicated war room.
  • Establish a decision-making protocol:
    • Create an Incidence Response Team with designated individuals and backups. Delineate their roles and responsibilities to ensure speed and efficiency.
    • Dedicate individuals to identify and track false information and sources.
    • Ensure the Chief Election Officer, the Director of Elections and the Communications Director (or similar officers) are set as decisionmakers for consulting and activating the crisis plan and response.
  • Identify spokespeople ahead of time: Provide media training for all spokespeople. To select the team members, consider factors such as communications skills, prior experience, authority, empathy and relationship with stakeholders.


Create collateral materials

Have drafts and templates ready and previously approved, then finalize when the need arises. Ensure materials adequately address all the potential situations mapped in the audit (first step of this manual).

  • Key messages:
    • Create fact-based key messages and talking points.
    • Create a list of terms with a common nomenclature for use by all stakeholders.
    • Develop communications response guidelines (social media included).
  • Statements and press releases: Have a prepared statement on hand that can be used to make an initial general response to audiences when the crisis first becomes known. Initial statements should include at a minimum the “who, what, when and where” of the situation, using only reliable sources and confirmed facts. As new information and facts become available, share the information as quickly as possible — in real time if feasible.
    • Prepare holding statements for various scenarios.
    • For press releases and public statements, be mindful of the tone, timing and intended audience.
    • Analyze disclosure terms with all departments and review applicable laws (legal implication, public opinion).
    • Ensure review by legal department.
  • Language guidance:
    • Be concise and address the fake news directly. Be factual.
    • Say “we” instead of mentioning the organization (candidate or party) name. When needed to express joint responsibility, say “We are working together with…” or “Working closely with…”
    • Keep messaging positive and avoid confrontation.
    • Be honest, sincere and transparent. Accept responsibility where appropriate and quickly focus on a remedy. Be careful not to give information subject to change. Provide context.
    • Don’t blame others in your statement, even when referring to false information or fake news. Stay focused on fact-based, accurate information.
    • Present negatives in broader context, give additional relevant information and make good use of euphemisms.
    • Stress that you are taking action, using phrases like “Taking immediate action,” or “Taking appropriate measures.” Be specific as to what you are doing, and do it.
    • Show empathy and concern.
  • FAQs: Prepare an FAQ document to address key issues that are likely to generate questions. Use FAQs to address issues that may come up, but should not be included in initial messaging.
  • Emergency website plan: Consider developing a crisis microsite – a landing page or microsite prepared in advance of an emergency, but not viewable until it is activated as part of the crisis communications response.
  • Establish a secure portal as the only source for accurate, timely election information available from one week before an election commences to one week after votes are certified.
  • Social media:
    • Establish a social media manager (share their contact information and responsibilities with your key internal stakeholders). Also, establish backup personnel.
    • Establish a team that will have access to login details, platforms, and key messages.
    • Craft hashtags and social media campaigns (updates).
  • Social media guidelines:
    • Monitor and respond.
    • Be accurate and use approved messaging.
    • Stay factual and constructive.
    • Offer regular updates.
    • Coordinate with messages distributed through other channels (website, offline).
    • Negative comments/fake news-based comments: Don’t delete negative comments or fake news-based comments. Respond with key messages. Be courteous and constructive when handling them. Know when to stop and take the discussion offline if necessary.


Prepare a media toolkit 

Include EMBs’ facts and figures, diagrams and infographics, case studies, testimonials, spokespeople’s biographies and photos. These serve as references, guides and sources of information that will come in handy when addressing false information. When finalized, share with journalists and editors prior to the election.


Prepare and maintain lists of contacts
  • Incidence Response Team, including communications team, spokespeople and PR consultants.
  • Media list (names, titles, contact info.) and the internal contact for each journalist.
  • Experts and third parties (and their areas of expertise or interest).
    • Share talking points, FAQs, sample social media posts, etc., with them – anything that will help spread the truth to their followers/members.
  • Key executives and their roles.
  • Create a Contact Log: A log should be established to record all inquiries from the media or other audiences. This will help to ensure that the many responses required are not overlooked. It will also assist in the post-crisis analysis.


Plan offline events
  • Prepare a press conference contingency plan. Include potential locations, budgets, trustworthy providers, logistics, workflow and agenda.
  • Implement a dedicated phone line and train staff to respond in case of emergency.
Step 3 – Prepare in Advance

Election season is always a busy, pressure-packed occasion. So, it is wise to always have a crisis-ready culture. Before the election and before any crisis arises, prepare, train for, and test responses ahead of time. Consider skillsets, campaigns and ongoing preparedness programs for your organization.


Prepare election staff
  • All team members should be prepared to monitor news, identify red flags, escalate issues and determine next steps to undertake.
    • Establish a clear chain of command in advance. All EMB staff members should know (or be able to find easily) whom to notify and how to proceed in case he/she identifies issues of concern that could result in a crisis.
    • Establish key messages and have templates ready to be updated. Templates should include answers for anticipated questions from the media.
    • Media train your spokespeople – and practice. A crisis situation is always difficult when dealing with tough audiences. Rehearse prepared statements and answers to possible “tough” questions that may be asked by reporters. Familiarize spokespeople with the process and the issues, thus lessening the possibility for errors or embarrassment. If possible, similar preparation should be conducted prior to each media interview, briefing or news conference. It is also important to anticipate and address new questions or issues that arise as the story evolves. It is better to over-prepare than to be surprised by the questions. The Incidence Response Team should prepare questions and answers for the practice sessions. These questions and answers should be for internal use only and not for distribution outside the organization.


Develop a media relations strategy
  • Brief journalists (before, during and after elections):
    • Conduct background briefings and hold public events on election procedures and the current work the EMB is doing to ensure a secure and efficient election.
    • Explain the technologies and systems to be used. Set expectations on the timing of each process.
    • Detail what the auditing mechanisms are in place, as well as all the election security measures and cyber analytics tools to be used. Draft FAQ documents for each audience (print media, digital outlets, social platforms).
    • Identify who will be responsible for each election cycle stage, including the EMBs’ hierarchy.
    • Share content (e.g., infographics) that can be published and socialized by media.
  • Personalize/customize the interaction with journalists:
    • Be a reliable source of information. Establish relationships before a crisis happens. A good practice is to organize briefings with journalists – explaining the whole election process, technologies used, etc.
    • Establish a private Twitter feed for media: Manage media’s desire for real-time info.
    • Have a media toolkit/documents ready to pitch (see Communications Plan).
  • Understand and support collaborating journalism and crowdsourced news reports:
    • Identify groups of journalists working on monitoring and verifying election (fake) news.
    • Establish an open communication channel with them.
  • Fact-checking:
    • Fact-checking has become the most effective journalistic response to fake news and other forms of misleading information. The US 2018 elections served to prove what fact-checking organizations bring to the election cycle. Some of them (e.g. in Brazil and US) became “go to sources” of reliable information to confirm election news.
    • Vet the publisher’s credibility – What is the outlet? Is it known? What’s the domain? Who’s the author? Who is paying for this?
    • Pay attention to quality and timeliness – Are there spelling errors? What’s the word usage like?  Is everything in caps? Check the date.
    • Check the sources and citations – go upstream to the source. See who is quoted and make sure they are real people or organizations. Follow the links and see how reliable they are.
    • Find out who (if anyone) fact-checked the piece or pass it to a fact-checking source.
    • Support citizens’ collaborative platforms for fact-checking.


Educate voters, influencers and political stakeholders
  • Know your citizen (customer/voter):
    • Understand and document how voters interact with you, including their channels, frequency, motivations.
    • Educate your audiences. Teach courses, workshops, or digital webinars about rigorous methods for fact-checking and verification to unmask fabricated news, deceptive memes and manipulated videos that pop up on political websites and social networks.


Create content all year-around
  • Engage in thought leadership: Become the expert that provides reliable and timely information with a unique point of view.
  • Counter false information: Research the published information regarding elections before the voting cycle begins and join the election experts’ list.
  • Keep key audiences up to date: Establish continuous communications to grow your audience, build trust and maximize impact.

Be honest, sincere and transparent. Accept responsibility where appropriate and quickly focus on a remedy.

Step 4 – Taking Action In a Crisis

Your capacity to respond quickly and effectively during a crisis while keeping the spread of false information under control must be a priority. Additionally, avoiding panic and also having clear procedures in place will help you find opportunities that manifest within the crisis. Act promptly to protect your reliability and election integrity.


Let the plan guide you
  • Activate the Incidence Response Team.
  • Implement the crisis management workflow.
  • Monitor the media coverage of all election information (including fake news, and note them as such).
  • Prepare to take action.


Ensure that your audiences are regularly informed
  • Give regular updates on the situation to the stakeholders mapped in Step 1. Be as open, transparent and cooperative as you can, but avoid giving unnecessary details. If you stay silent, speculation and false information could be perceived as truth.
  • Inform your entire organization of a developing crisis. Follow the procedures in Step 2 and 3.
  • Use all available channels and platforms. Be prepared to find false information in a variety of channels.


Be timely, honest and transparent
  • Take control of your organization’s voice across all media (digital, print, etc.) before, during and after the crisis. Establish your organization as reliable experts.
  • Promote the truth.
    • Focus on actions you are taking to address the issue. Talk about what you are doing to address public needs or concerns.
    • Establish the facts and double-check them. Avoid mentioning or repeating misinformation in your messages. Focus on providing accurate facts and do not repeat the false messages.
  • Manage Social Media: Make your point, give the facts about a situation, rebut any false accusations, suppress speculation, calm nerves and provide useful information throughout all of your social media accounts.
    • Facebook: Create your own profile to share news about elections and create community through a group.
    • Twitter: Twitter is an essential platform to talk with people and respond to their questions. Twitter is a favorite place to share articles and expert opinion.
    • Instagram: Use to share stories. Highlight the people making the election possible, the team and the voters, their culture and their countries.
    • Website: Establish and publicize a dedicated, secure website for election information.


Identify opportunities resulting from the crisis
  • Remember best practices during crisis communications (online and offline).
  • Provide context. You are far more likely to protect a long-term reputation if you put the situation into context.
  • Remember: All crises come to an end. How you respond in a crisis will determine how you emerge.
  • Use the crisis to learn about opportunities and weaknesses.
58 percent

FACT: 58% of Americans say the explosion of information sources makes it harder, rather than easier, to stay well informed.

Source: 2017 testimony by Facebook’s general counsel (via USA Today)

Step 5 – Post-election Evaluation

The last step of the communications handbook, evaluation, is essential for closing a crisis event related to disinformation or misinformation successfully. Hopefully, your response was effective enough to avert a crisis.  Whether or not a crisis materialized, the evaluation process is as important as the planning and implementation sections. You must determine what went right and what went wrong, and how to fix it before the next situation arises. Make sure to make the process comprehensive and collaborative.


Use checklists

Have an accessible archive of checklists with all the actions proposed in Steps 1 to 4 of the manual that apply to your election management procedures. Share the lists with all team members contributing to the crisis response and analysis.


Conduct post-election audits and reviews
  • Document the lessons learned for future communications planning and crisis readiness.
  • Use surveys or interviews and incorporate your stakeholders’ feedback.
  • Review every aspect of your plan and revise accordingly.
  • Review and discuss findings with your team.
  • Revise your team, plan and process as needed for next time.