Election 2020 is a weighty topic for all Americans and registered voters won't be sitting this one out, according to historical tallies of early voting and mail-in ballots.
Those powerful dynamics will create new ripples in the election conversation cycle we have been conditioned to expect. Every four years, PR pros would avoid big campaigns, announcements and heavy outreach in early November then resume normal activity soon thereafter. It was a simple playbook to follow and tough to screw up.
But this year, will we watch the results roll in and see a winner predicted by midnight on election day? It's possible, but don't bet on it.
Communications pros show their true value when they peer around corners that others don't. So, here's the new playbook, and it's far from simple: Brace yourself, your colleagues and your clients for an elongated and more volatile election cycle. Then, feel empowered that you've prepared everyone as best as you can and trust that your organizational agility will kick in as the actual circumstances unfold.
Here are four scenarios we are watching:
Election day becomes election week
There are 32 states with pre-canvassing laws that allow election officials to begin processing mail-in ballots before election day, which allows them to save administrative time for ballot counting on November 3. However, others — including key battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — do not allow for pre-canvassing, barring a new court order.
This means we could be waiting for final results in pivotal states for several days or longer. And that means the nation and the media cycle could be stuck on election results far longer this year than we've seen since the 2000 Bush-Gore Election.
Did you plan a big announcement on November 17 thinking the election will have run its course? That logic may be tested if the results of certain counties and states are mired in legal battles.
Anticipate a more cluttered, complex and emotional media landscape and extensive social opinions. The good news is we've all had practice at this thanks to what 2020 has offered us so far.
Heavy scrutiny around social platforms
History indicates that conspiracy theories thrive in information vacuums. If there is not a clear, decisive winner named in the 24 hours after November 3, things may get weird. We may see social media channels under scrutiny for allowimg groups to amplify false information around the election and ballot counting process.
If dangerous false theories are being amplified, be prepared for brands to go dark or pull advertising from certain platforms. For PR pros, this can mean advising that influencer or content-driven campaigns should to be adjusted, minimized or paused.
Voters fearful of post-election violence
Some 56% of respondents in a recent YouGov poll said that they expect to see "an increase in violence as a result of the election." Nearly half of registered voters (47%) say they disagree with the idea that the election "is likely to be fair and honest" and 51% say they won't "generally agree on who is the legitimately elected president of the United States."
It seems likely that at a minimum, there will be peaceful protests in key US cities.
The best outcome is an uncontested election result in which both parties acknowledge the credibility of the voting process and outcome, but communications pros should prepare for all scenarios. Our agency recommends a nimble approach to all activities in November and is developing backup plans where possible and keeping in close communication with talent, influencers, partners and employees on how we adjust the timing of campaigns as needed.
Brands as voting champions
Here's the easy part: It is standard practice for companies of all kinds to encourage voting by allowing employees the flexibility to be away from work to vote or donate their time at the polls. Some organizations are closing completely on November 3 or working to minimize important meetings that day.
But if election day becomes election week the stress may fester in the country's work force. A discussion about mental health resources must now become part of the company's message.
We advise corporate communications pros to have a statement ready to communicate what your company is doing to encourage your employees to get out the vote, should local or trade media inquire.
Policies should be clearly communicated to your employees internally so they feel supported in voting. And this year, be ready to communicate policies to allow mentally fatigued employees to be allowed more time off past election day.
In short, when the act of voting itself requires a whole new plan, the key is for organizations to plan for every possible scenario, on election day and beyond.
Shaun Clair is the head of media relations for 160over90.