Why election management bodies need strategic communication plans

Banners held outside a counting centre during US elections saying 'count every vote'

Why election management bodies need strategic communication plans

If election management bodies do not have a plan for effective, multi-year strategic communications, credible election processes risk being undermined by disinformation.

Imagine the situation – you are an official working in the national election commission. Voting has concluded, counting is finished. Tonight comes the culmination of years of hard work, considerable stress, and little sleep…

Suddenly, you are faced with a barrage of allegations of malpractice.

Then, it gets personal. Accusations of corruption, video-based disinformation, and the sharing of personal details. The losers allege fraud, citing fabricated and flimsy evidence. You know this is not the truth– but how can you prove this to thousands, or even millions of angry citizens?

What happened? Where did it all go wrong?

Sometimes, election management bodies (EMBs) do indeed engage in electoral malpractice. But often, they have done their job diligently, but their work is not accompanied by effective strategic communications. The resulting information vacuums are readily filled by speculation and rumour.

This can undermine the time, money, and work invested to what might otherwise be a credible election process.

Multi-year communications

Elections are about both facts and perceptions. The perception of election integrity is nurtured across the entirety of the electoral cycle. Consequently, communications must be both timely and data-driven. Pre-empting the spread of disinformation seeking to discredit the election is a core function of a modern election management body.

Often, procedural changes on key issues such as candidate and voter registration, or financial disclosure requirements for political parties, are not communicated early enough. Changes in timelines or processes can fuel disinformation if the EMB fails to issue a clear and timely statement of why the change was necessary and what positive effect it will bring.

Many positive steps to share information taken by EMBs, such as political party forums and NGO information meetings – which often occur shortly before the vote – are simply not enough. Engagement must be a continual process throughout the electoral cycle.

Lorenzo Córdova, Director of the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), recently explained that it is important to outline the “chain of trust” – the series of stages establishing electoral integrity. The INE places a strong emphasis on providing citizens with the information they need to understand why and how decisions have been taken.

Córdova explains how perceptions of both the voting process and the accuracy of results are created over multiple electoral cycles; calling into question the wisdom of leaving most communications activities until several months prior to election day.

Mechanisms to consult and inform stakeholders on every step of the electoral process, alongside the rationale underpinning any changes, are required throughout the electoral cycle to ensure unfounded accusations cannot thrive. When everyone understands the process, it becomes much harder to discredit the election under false pretences.

While EMBs must proactively engage stakeholders, stakeholders themselves need to take up the offer and engage the EMB. It is not enough to simply treat an EMB as a ready scapegoat for broader grievances around the process. Communication is a two-way street. Ideally, stakeholders should have the resources, time, and avenues to participate in the conversation at every institutional level.

Matching capabilities to need

Despite the clear need for many EMBs to invest in and improve their communications arsenal, communications budgets are often the first to be cut when resources become strained. The thinking is that it is at least possible to run an election without data-driven engagement, but it is not possible to run an election without ballots, boxes, and trained polling officials.

This is ostensibly true, but the deprioritisation of communications capacity seriously weakens the ballots, boxes, and officials. If people do not believe a well-run process was genuine, then it may be rejected with as much zeal as if it had actually been fraudulent. Often, elections are commended by observers for their compliance with international standards, but rejected by recipients of targeted disinformation.

Even when EMBs’ communications departments are well-resourced, they are often ill-equipped with the tools to do their job effectively.  As election experts, we work on many elections each year, and see how so we see how threats to election integrity continually evolve. Too often, election management bodies are still preparing to respond to the threats from the election five years back.

Even worse, crisis communications protocols and planning are often not in place. This leaves the perception of the democratic process at the mercy of those who levy baseless attacks against it, rendering the EMB unable to muster an effective response in a timely manner, if at all.

A framework for response

To avoid falling victim to the consequences of inadequate communications, EMBs should consider four overlapping actions:

  1. Understand the threat: throughout the electoral cycle, officials should build strong global connections with civil society organizations, experts, and observers who have worked on votes taking place in the previous six months. Officials should forecast emerging threats, to ensure that analysis focuses on what the information landscape will look like by the time of the subsequent election, not the previous one.
  2. Build networks: Effective counter-disinformation often requires reaching new audiences. This means coordinating groups of influencers to respond swiftly to disinformation campaigns, engaging offline communities, and – as took place in the Philippines election WFD recently observed – ensuring a strong communicator conducts interviews on behalf of the EMB.
  3. Prepare messages: Election management bodies need to prepare template responses, based on the forecasting undertaken, well in advance. Misinformation can spread quicker than any institution can design, target, and deliver clear infographics and eye-catching videos to counter it. In its most basic form, a template in which misleading images can be marked ‘FAKE’ can help accelerate response times. Election management bodies can also provide tools that empower others to promote fact-based information, as the Election Commission of Australia has done through its disinformation register.
  4. Evaluate the impact: The key moment of ‘down time’ that follows the election must be harnessed to assess lessons learned. This includes paying attention to the insight and recommendations of election observation and expert missions. Many – such as WFD Election Expert Missions – will have undertaken a thorough assessment of the information landscape.

At WFD, we find some of the most admirable people we work with serve in election management bodies. It is a tragedy when the diligent work of honest officials is smeared in a vacuum opened by inadequate communications. Through greater collaboration and information-sharing, we can close the gap between those seeking to safeguard elections, and those seeking to smear them.