This article is also availbale in Spanish.
The decision to hold or postpone scheduled elections during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak can be the equivalent to choosing between life and death, for people but also for democracies. When it comes to priorities, the health of the population should indisputably come first, closely followed by the health of democracy.
Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the capacity of state institutions to utilize rapid mechanisms for collecting, processing and analysing information as the foundation of the decision-making process is as vital as the timely implementation of the appropriate communication strategies. In the absence of proper communication, the restrictive measures imposed by many states to contain the spread of the virus do nothing but stoke public fear, now increasingly related to the (risk of permanent) loss of fundamental rights and liberties.
Disease and disinformation
Only a few months ago we were talking about disinformation at an unprecedented level when referring to the various online manipulation campaigns that targeted elections worldwide from 2016 onwards. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what was previously diagnosed as information disorder evolved into an infodemic, making the mission of state institutions even harder while escalating individual fear into mass panic. The issue reaches the most dangerous point when false information is disseminated from state leadership entities, generating confusion and distrust.
Citizens are in the position of having to distinguish between a high variety of data and information, often conflicting, under the pressure of time and fear. The concerted efforts made by social media and popular ICT platforms to fight both the virus and the surge of disinformation have not been able to fit the dimension of the problems so far, therefore free, independent and reliable media play an essential role in COVID-19 response effectiveness, as well as in maintaining a healthy democratic environment in times of crisis.
Proper communication builds trust and reduces fear (of abuse)
Trust is the most valuable asset for a state institution, and it is highly correlated with the previous fulfilment of citizen’s expectations.
- It invests the authorities with the power to rapidly adopt and smoothly implement the necessary decisions.
- It helps make their voice heard above the (virtual) crowds, thus reducing the spread of false information and its potentially devastating consequences.
- It makes people accept the limitations to their rights more easily based on the certainty of gaining them back once the danger has been overcome.
Unfortunately, in many countries state institutions found themselves involved in this global crisis while facing a significant deficit of trust, with no contingency plans in place and with limited resources. It is also the case for electoral management bodies (EMBs).
However, due to the dynamic they create and the pressure they exercise, crises have the potential of accelerating positive change in organizations and in people. An alchemical process of converting distrust into trust can take place in such circumstances, when the society is more inclined to offer leaders a (second) chance to prove their competency and good faith, and it is mainly related to hope. Even the rights restricting decisions, when clearly explained and effectively communicated, have the potential of consolidating trust, which in turn dispels fear.
Preliminary action points
Whether a country held elections amid the COVID-19 crisis, decided to postpone them, opted for special voting arrangements, or has yet to decide, from a communication perspective, the EMBs should continue to function in crisis mode until normal electoral routines are reinstated.
Adjust the processes to fit the new context
If an EMB does not have a designated structure to deal with crises, it should establish a cell or core group where representatives of the relevant departments within the organization can fulfil the needed functions and collaborate closely with the decision-making structure to inform its measures and adjust the communication strategy accordingly.
Due to the novelty of the disease, the crisis it generated is characterized by a very unpredictable dynamic. In such a context, it is not unusual for an EMB/institution to find itself in the position of contradicting in the morning the declarations made the evening before. Therefore, a rapid reaction mechanism should be put in place and include approval process, a clear chain of command, permanent access to the decision-making structure within the electoral management body, designated spokesperson.
Ensure interagency communication and collaboration mechanisms
An external mechanism of collaboration and communication with the relevant state agencies, including public health authorities, should be integrated and operationalized to ensure a scrupulous analysis of the implications of each of the possible scenarios on health and security, as well as on democracy.
Collaboration with online platforms and media is an essential element for tackling the attempts of manipulation and the spread of disinformation related to electoral processes (either domestic or as part of external information operations) in the context of COVID-19 crisis and should be developed in parallel.
Address the internal communication needs
Internal communication is as important as the external one to prevent panic and the spread of rumours and false information. The technical apparatus of the EMB needs to be timely and transparently informed on the decisions that are being made and how its activity will be impacted by the crisis measures.
The crisis communication strategy
- When elections are held amid COVID-19, the decision could be perceived as irresponsible and in case of low turnout, the legitimacy of elections questioned.
- When elections are postponed due to the pandemic, the political rights of the citizens are suspended.
- When the rules are changed in the middle of the game (special voting measures), especially in a low trust context, it could be associated with an attempt of fraud. Also, an inadequate voter information campaign may prevent the electorate from properly casting their ballots, which in turn could lead to a high number of invalidated votes.
- The limitations to in-person campaigning and fundraising following the anti-COVID-19 measures raise concerns over the capacity of the voters of making informed decisions and question the fairness of elections.
- The international observation missions initially planned may no longer be deployed, also raising concerns about the legitimacy of elections.
Although in many cases the decision might not even belong to the EMBs, they do have the responsibility of clearly and transparently informing the electorate on the implications of each measure.
What are the objectives?
Any crisis communications plan should address people’s fears with honest, concrete answers. Creating a clear and common understanding of and compliance with the decided measures are the main objectives of the crisis communication strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who is the target audience?
Crisis communications can often fall in targeting certain audiences over others. The communication and outreach activities should be developed and adjusted to specifically suit every category of audience (voters, poll workers, candidates, political parties, observers etc.) and segmented according to both the objectives to be achieved and the media consumption patterns of the targeted public. Therefore, a quick analysis of the audiences is needed to make sure that the communication is inclusive and reaches all the categories of public. Efforts need to be made to ensure that the information reaches out to different minority sectors, whether ethnic, linguistic or citizens with less access to social media.
What do you communicate? Key message(s)
Assuming the decisions were the result of a collaborative work between the relevant state institutions that include electoral and public health authorities, the consistency of the messages conveyed by all the actors involved is key in maintaining the trust and decrease the level of uncertainty among the population.
The main messages should align to the ones of the international bodies and focus on public health and safety of people and democracy.
According to their mandates, EMBs are responsible for making sure people have access to correct information. EMBs have a central role in presenting the arguments for the decisions made related to elections, the expected outcomes, the risks as well as the measures that will be put in place as a guarantee for safeguarding democracy. They should be perceived as the primary source of information on electoral matters thus discouraging any attempts of manipulation or disinformation, but this depends largely on their transparent approach and the level of trust they enjoy among population. Joint voter-information campaigns between the EMB and the relevant health authority can be considered.
The state authorities should also be mindful of people’s health and safety and act as an example for the population. The message sent through non-verbal communication can have a bigger impact than the verbalized one, especially during these times of increased vigilance. Therefore, the EMBs should respect the measures in place for containing the virus including when organizing press conferences or live-streamed interventions.
It is highly important that the electoral authorities prove leadership through coherently and unambiguously explaining the options, the decisions made, the reasons behind them, the data and information they rely on and the expected results, while also recognizing uncertainty in a transparent and empathetic way.
As data and the situation are evolving rapidly, the decisions made are based on the information available up to a certain point and they could change rapidly. It might be the reason why some EMBs postponed elections without providing a new date. However, it is preferable to present possible scenarios and inform the citizens on potential changes through regular updates.
Referencing experts when taking and explaining measures is a recommended healthy practice that offers solidity to decisions and subsequently to the related statements, and it is also in line with the current tendencies in people’s communicational behaviour.
The entire crisis communication frame requires solid preparation in advance as improvising at any of its stages could generate irreparable damages.
Through what means?
The consumption of digital content has increased significantly due to the lockdown/working from home measures. However, a tendency towards traditional media, especially TV and radio, has been noticed as well, with press conferences attracting very high audience levels. Therefore, it is important that fact-based information and messages are conveyed through all the available means to reach all the audiences. Once again, an emphasis should be on inclusivity.
Social media plays a central role in achieving the communication objectives, especially for countering disinformation and dispelling rumours. The online platforms provide the appropriate environment for organic and direct interaction with the citizens. The EMBs can use them to answer people’s questions, inform the voters on the latest measures, and promote general health and safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visual materials usually get higher reach and prove very useful, especially when seeking to convey difficult or complex topics. Webinars, live transmissions, Q&A sessions are also good additions to traditional mass communication approaches because of their people-centric approach.
When and how frequent?
A routine should be established to answer the acute need of predictability people feel during these unpredictable times. Exceptional situations require exceptional measures, so the authorities should have no hesitation in communicating with the public multiple times per day to clarify situations and inform the citizens on the latest evolutions and decisions.
Information should be shared regularly and at a time of day that ensures maximum outreach. New developments, guidance or decisions should be publicly communicated as soon as possible to avoid the spread of rumors.
How do you react to criticism?
It is important to keep in mind that the state institutions are not the only communicator in the landscape. While reliable media and strong civil society organizations help substantively, there are situations when, depending on the public response, the communication strategy, and sometimes even the decisions might need to change, based on the feedback analysis. Monitor the media and the public reaction and adjust the strategy accordingly. Having a quick reaction can be as useful as having no reaction, depending on the context. Again, transparency is key.
- In the case of valid criticism, take responsibility and address the legitimate concerns.
- When reports based on incorrect or false information are disseminated, the correct, fact-based information must get visible as quick as possible (without reiterating the false/incorrect reports).
- When social media firestorms ignite, it is particularly important not to fuel them and take the time to assess the situation. If the position of the institution related to the matter is public and clear, it might be the time and the dynamic of social media itself who will extinguish the fire.
Return to (new) normal. Learn from mistakes and prepare for the next crisis
Once a crisis has subsided, the impact of the measures implemented as a response to the crisis should be assessed. Depending on the result, permanentizing the successful approaches should be considered, but only after carefully analysing their feasibility within the post-crisis context and always mindful of the democratic values.
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.