Election Day is next week. Tens of millions of Americans have already cast their ballots in states where early voting is permitted. Tens of millions more will vote on Tuesday in their local polling place. Most years, elections just kind of happen. People vote, wait for results to be announced, celebrate or not, and go on with their lives the next day.
The 2020 election will not follow that script, and high levels of anxiety will last for a while.
No matter who wins, one-third of the country will be relieved, another third enraged – more so than before Election Day – and the final third will just want it all to stop. We may not know who has won on Tuesday, or even next week. We could see a replay of the Florida election in 2000, except it may play out across multiple states. We may see two competing administrations, each claiming victory.
As a strategic communicator, it’s not productive to try to plan for every possible permutation and combination of events. But it is worthwhile to consider some broad contingencies and what message would be appropriate coming from the organization, the CEO, or the brand.
Here are a few things we have been advising clients to keep in mind.
First and foremost, think about who matters most to you among your 3 C’s: communities, customers, and critics. Communities include your employees and the partners you have to fulfill your organization’s mission. Customers are the people and businesses you serve. Critics include your typical antagonists, including your competitors.
We learned from our COVID-19 communications – if we didn’t know it already – that our communities want reassurance. They want to hear that it’s okay to be anxious, that we’ve got their best interests in mind, and that they are truly important. Our customers want to know what we’re doing to serve them better and that we’re acting responsibly.
That’s why you may want to make a pre-emptive statement to these two C’s that articulates a higher purpose that is greater than any election. It can be a soaring statement of your mission of values that can serve as a rallying cry for your communities: We must put aside that which would divide us so we can come together and move forward to fulfill our mission. Customers, whether they’re happy about the election or sad, need to know you’re there for them and still providing the same level of service they’ve come to expect.
That said, make sure to read any statement you make from those three perspectives – the “thirds” I mentioned at the top – so you do not inadvertently trigger an “us vs. them” reaction. Project empathy, respect, and calmness, and keep the message consistent with your relationship with them. Remember, you care about these two C’s.
Your critics, on the other hand, will still be your critics after the election. An election can change many things that can affect your organization – tax policies, regulations, judicial philosophies – but it can’t change your critics. There’s no need to address them about the election, but you do need to keep an eye on their messaging and respond accordingly.
What you may need to address is any pressure to take a stand that comes from your communities and customers. Imagine the vote was close enough in your state that a recount is requested, and then litigated. Let’s say another local organization comes out with a statement that it supports every vote being counted. Your first two C’s begin to clamor for one from you. Think about what the organization or your CEO should say, and what is the threshold for making a public statement or sending an all-employee message.
Be prepared to pivot your brand’s messaging or marketing depending on the mood of your first two C’s after the election. Get executive buy-in now so you can be nimble and protect your brand from tone-deafness. This also applies to internal communications. Be prepared to hold town hall meetings and encourage informal check-ins to listen to your employees and understand their anxiety and stress.
Watch for signals from the marketplace. In the event of an apparent Biden win, when do Fox News and Republican leaders begin referring to him as the victor? If Trump wins re-election, when do the Washington Post or MSNBC call him the winner? These kinds of signals would tell you that any storm may have passed, though some may still refuse to accept the result.
Absent these signals, unrest and agitation may grow, and that could bring the election to your doorstep. There may be a protest near you, or groups of protesters clashing, rapidly ratcheting up the prospects for violence and vandalism. Stay connected to local authorities and law enforcement. It may well be worth a phone call or email to get some local intelligence on what may happen or is happening in response to the election.
Regardless of how, or when, the election turns out, your organization will get back to the COVID-adjusted normal. Be thoughtful of how you would respond if things go off the rails, but don’t spend a lot of time worrying about every way they could. Focus on the first two of your three C’s and what they want and need to hear from you.
Heightened states of emotion need a source of calmness, consistency, and routine. Be that beacon of calm, providing a safe haven from the storm for the people you care about most.
And, above all else, vote.