Will we know who won the presidency and both chambers of Congress on Nov. 4? There’s a good chance we won’t. In some races, including the presidency, we may still be counting ballots. We may have challenges to the results. We may see protests—even violence—and there will almost certainly be strong rhetoric.
Any or all of that will impact your advocacy program and how you communicate with your audience. How you proceed requires care and thought, but one thing is certain: You don’t have to go silent. There are things you can do to help your members, advocates, customers or others on your list navigate a tumultuous election.
Of course, this is a good time for Hippocratic thinking. The first rule will be to do no harm. The best strategy is to create a plan that spells out what you will do—and equally important, what you won’t—should the 2020 election go into overtime.
Creating a Plan
There is precedent for uncertain elections. In the year 2000, a recount in Florida left the presidency in question for weeks as the two candidates argued before state election officials and the courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately deciding the outcome.
It was a period of many hectic news cycles as courts made decisions that altered the landscape and parties and campaigns responded. But there are procedures for uncertainty in the American system (for more on this, see our last post), and many organizations continued to communicate with their audiences as the situation unfolded. What your organization will do should there be uncertainty next month is a topic worth considering.
Gather your team together and discuss when you might speak out and what you might say. If your organization was around in 2000, you might take a look at what you did back then. If there are people who recall that time, perhaps hear what they have to say. The parallels between 2000 and 2020 are not perfect. But it will give you a place to start.
Try to draw some consensus around what you will communicate on and what can be taken off the table. Discuss different scenarios. Be sure the decision makers at your organization are fully invested. Then, because nobody knows what will happen, discuss plans for rapid response, should it be required.
What that boils down to is this: Make sure that everyone on your team understands how communication decisions will be made and what the procedures for sending those communications will be. Pay special attention to the approval process and any sign offs that are needed. The goal is to emerge with a solid understanding of how your organization will communicate should you choose to do so. This is not a good time for mistakes, so creating a plan and ensuring everyone is operating from the same playbook is important.
Addressing Your Audience
Even if you don’t weigh in on uncertain races—and most organizations won’t—there is still much you can, and perhaps should, do to communicate with your audience.
- Thank Your Advocates. If you have been asking people to register and vote, the post-election period is a good time to thank them. If you sponsored registration drives, petitions or pledges, report your results. Remind them that, no matter what the outcome of the election, that their effort was important and appreciated.
Remember too that it is almost always okay to advocate for basic American ideals, such as civic participation, free speech, free expression and the right to protest peacefully. Most organizations cannot go wrong by lauding democracy in action.
- Reassure Your Audience. A few words of reassurance can be welcome in an uncertain time, especially for membership organizations. Maybe it’s a letter or a video from the CEO. Maybe it’s a testimonial from a member of your audience. Whatever you choose, keep it short. The goal is simply to remind your audience that your organization is still at their side.
Some organizations, especially associations, may want to provide an election analysis or updates as post-election action unfolds. That’s a solid idea—if you are setup to do that. If you have a policy shop, political analysts and subject matter experts that can help your audience understand what is happening and what it means, that may be a great value to them. If you don’t have those resources, now may not be the time to spin up expert analysis. It’s better to keep things simple.
- Congratulate the Winners. Whatever the election outcome, there will be new faces in Congress, governorships and state legislatures. You can congratulate them on their victory and note that you look forward to working with them. The candidates on this list will be different at every organization and nobody can do them all (there are thousands of state offices). But short communications to a targeted list, whether on social media or other channels, is a solid gesture.
As you well know, advocacy is an always-on activity. Even if there are extra innings in the election, Washington will move on soon enough. Smart organizations will keep their audiences engaged with an eye toward the days after the election is finalized, because those too will be busy.
Lawmakers may convene to deal with the budget when the current extension ends in mid December. A new Congress will be seated, a president will be inaugurated and a State of the Union speech will be delivered early next year, no matter which side wins. There will be plenty of advocacy in the days ahead. In today’s world, it never stops
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