In many ways, how Iowa’s Democratic Party handled its caucus night results debacle is a case study in crisis communications with the myriad missteps offering campaigns and groups several lessons for navigating similar situations of high stress, great uncertainty, and enormous stakes.
From the silence on the party’s Twitter feed, which had been tweeting up until the issues with the results became apparent, to the opaque press statements to absent public leadership, there’s a lot for campaigns to consider from Monday night.
Here are four practical crisis communications lessons practitioners highlighted to C&E from Iowa Caucus night:
Always be prepared.
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democrats, was bullish about the party’s caucus app in the lead up to Feb. 3. "If there's a challenge, we'll be ready with a backup and a backup to that backup and a backup to the backup to the backup," Price told NPR. "We are fully prepared to make sure that we can get these results in and get those results in accurately.”
Price made similar remarks to other outlets. But whether they didn’t anticipate the problems, or simply did a poor job of training and prep, the lack of a response plan here was obvious. If you don’t have a roadmap in the case of a crisis, you’re doomed from the start.
“Backup plans cannot exist to just a [check] box. There must be serious planning and infrastructure in place to support plan B. Don’t view this as a waste if the expense was not ultimately needed,” DSPolitical’s Mark Jablonowski tweeted Feb. 4.
He noted the party could have invested in an automated phone system as a possible plan B. “Additionally, it is important to be transparent about mistakes and to acknowledge reports from the field. Truth is the only narrative that matters but it needs to be backed up with facts, especially if it goes against what is being reported,” Jablonowski added.
Don’t go into hiding.
During moments of crisis, it might seem risky to make a statement if not all the facts are known. But it can be even riskier to go silent as media coverage will simply continue without your side’s voice.
“It would have been smart for the State Chair to speak to the media before the late local news last night because the media has to fill the void,” Carrie Giddins Pergram, a former spokeswoman for Iowa Democrats who now teaches at American University, told C&E. “I worry what is lost in this conversation is all the hard work done in Iowa for the past year by campaign staff, volunteers and people who take their role very seriously, as Iowans do."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s camp, meanwhile, earned praise for stepping into the void left by the Iowa party officials and the lack of results. Being the first candidate to speak on Monday night was a “smart move,” by Klobuchar, according to SKDKnickerbocker’s Doug Thornell.
Be proactive on social platforms.
It’s one thing to have party officials or even surrogates helping in a crisis, but given the nature of how nefarious theories and disinformation spread online, you should be separately coordinating a social media response with someone clearly in charge. The ability to respond quickly and coherently to journalists and other stakeholders via social platforms is key to keeping misinformation from spreading exactly where it thrives.
Consider the approach of Shadow Inc., the company formerly known as GroundBase, which built the malfunctioning caucus reporting app for the Iowa Democrats. It’s Twitter feed was dormant amid the results crisis — so too was that of the Iowa Democrats and their spokeswoman. It wasn’t until later on Tuesday that the company started to use its Twitter feed to explain and apologize for the delay.
“Importantly, this issue did not affect the underlying caucus results data. We worked as quickly as possible overnight to resolve this issue, and the IDP has worked diligently to verify results,” the company tweeted Tuesday.
“We will apply the lessons learned in the future, and have already corrected the underlying technology issue. We take these issues very seriously, and are committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party’s goal of modernizing its election processes.”
Have a clear leadership structure in a crisis.
Knowing who’s in charge if the worst happens can save time and prevent confusion from reigning inside an organization.
“You really have to manage a crisis from the top down,” Edward Segal, a crisis communications consultant, told C&E. “Everyone has to know who reports to whom, and where to go where questions and problems arise.”
In Iowa, there was a hotline that precinct leaders could call, but that too had problems. To wit, some caucus precinct secretaries were waiting for more than an hour on hold — only to get hung up on.
If there’s no rapid response system or hierarchy of comms-legal-managment leadership, you spend far too much time figuring out who’s going to speak on behalf of an entity in crisis. The end result: infighting and then the blame game.