Comms lessons from the 2020 U.S. presidential election

Communicators also have a role to play moving the country forward.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

The communications lessons from the 2020 presidential election are already clear, even as the country is on day four of waiting with bated breath as the final votes are counted.

The responses from former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump as results filter in have been night and day.

As Biden edges closer to the 270-electoral-vote threshold needed to win the presidency, Trump’s campaign is laying the groundwork for contesting battleground states. His campaign filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, demanding better access for campaign observers to locations where ballots are being processed and to raise absentee ballot concerns.

Additionally, Trump’s campaign said it would ask for a recount in Wisconsin and called for a temporary halt in counting in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“Stop the count!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.

Biden said the count should continue in all states, adding, “No one’s going to take our democracy away from us — not now, not ever.”

Carnival Cruise Line chief communications officer Chris Chiames warns communicators not to follow Trump’s example. 

“Claims of the system being rigged, cheating and conspiracies against you are generally not made by people who think they will prevail or who have a solid case for themselves, Chiames said. “As communicators, we should not let our organizations take that path in strategy or message.” 

Additionally, Trump’s narrative early Wednesday morning was that he had won the election, despite several states being too close to call. Twitter and Facebook, meanwhile, have been labeling Trump’s posts claiming victory and questioning the legitimacy of ballots for Biden.

“An interesting reaction coming out of the election coverage was the speed at which networks and social media platforms debunked Trump’s inaccurate and misleading claim of winning the election,” says Michael Kaye, global communications and PR manager for OKCupid.

Big tech has come under fire for years about the role social media platforms play in election influencing or interference, so to see two of the biggest players take immediate action against false victory claims was “encouraging,” Kaye says.

Facebook and Twitter’s swift action builds off efforts from both social platforms during this election cycle. This summer, Twitter tested a feature that prompted users to read articles before retweeting them in an attempt to halt the blind spreading of misinformation.

Another highlight from this election for Kaye was media coverage. He particularly appreciated MSNBC’s reporting on the results.

“MSNBC told stories with their polling data, instead of simply reciting numbers that aren’t easily digestible for all viewers, especially those who are following elections closer than they ever have before,” says Kaye. “As a data-driven storyteller, I understand there’s an art to using insights to building a narrative, and MSNBC reported on a contentious election in a fairly balanced way.”

This election has been a reminder that all communicators can be more careful, says kglobal MD Dan Rene. He points to the bad predictions that floated around this week from journalists, activists, officials and pollsters.

“Candidate promises, staff members’ exaggerations and retweeted rumors fuel a frenzy that ends up destroying credibility when proven wrong, even if seemingly correct at the time,” says Rene. “Being first with a hot take is attractive. However, before communicating, think your message through and ask yourself: how will this contribute to a productive outcome? If it fails to meet that basic test, maybe consider a new message.”?

Comms consultant Melissa Musiker says she was struck by the highest-in-a-century voter turnout and what energized 65% of eligible voters.

“Given the increasing expectation of corporations engaging on social issues, we as communicators have an opportunity to continue to grow the level of awareness of the value of voting and civic involvement through our internal and external campaigns, public-private partnerships or CSR programs,” Musiker says.

As results came in, it quickly became clear that the U.S. is a very divided country, and although Biden is on the brink of winning the presidency, a Democratic “blue wave” never materialized. Seven Letter partner Brendan Buck notes that the Democrats could have done more to close that gap. Biden should have focused more on “defining himself” rather than Trump, he says.

“Democrats thought an anti-Trump campaign would be enough, but it appears there are a lot of people hesitant to vote for Democrats because of the caricature that was made of them,” says Buck. “Biden ran as a generic Democrat as part of his strategy and in doing so allowed the other side to paint Democrats in whatever way they wanted. That ended up resulting in a worse outcome than they expected.” 

Rory Cooper, MD at Purple Strategies who previously served as comms director for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, says he was surprised that the global pandemic wasn’t more imperative to voter decisions.

“Voters are tribal but at the same time have very diverse sets of interests when it comes to what they are going to vote on,” he says. “Agencies will have to take a second look at how they analyze these audiences and conversations and what outcomes they actually see out of it.”

Companies, adds Cooper, need to figure out how to “navigate this continued sense of populism while managing their reputation and own stakeholder concerns moving forward.”

Going forward, should Biden win, a Biden-Harris administration would need to shepherd the country through a reputational recovery unlike anything seen in a domestic political history, says Andrew Graham, founding partner of Clear, an issues management practice. And PR pros could do more than support this reputational recovery.

“[PR pros] could lead it by standing up for our peers in the media industry; by fully committing to a practice that is not only ethical but also moral; by calling out unethical or immoral practice, no matter when or where we see it taking place; and by pushing clients and colleagues to not only say things, but also to do things that put them on the right side of history,” Graham says.

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