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Crisis PR Lessons From The Iowa Caucus

As every politics fan knows, the Iowa caucuses mark the official start of voting in a given election year. Because of its first-in-the-nation status and a quaint, complicated caucus system (or maybe in spite of it), Iowa has an outsize impact on news and social media coverage.

Newspapers camp out there, journalists embed with campaigns, and the cable news shows bring on more pundits and plan hours of airtime in anticipation of a newsworthy outcome.

This year’s outcome for the Democratic caucus was newsworthy, all right, but not in the way Iowans hoped. Results were expected Monday evening, but two days after caucus night, we don’t have complete results. After months of buildup and millions spent on ads, appearances, canvassing and other politicking in the state, caucus day ended with no clear winner and many questions. As political scandals go, it’s not salacious. It may not even be particularly damaging to any candidate, although that’s arguable. But it’s definitely a mess. And poor communications by the Iowa Democratic party made it worse than it needed to be. It’s a classic case of what not to do in a crisis situation.

What went wrong?

Plenty. For the first time, the party chose to produce three sets of results: the totals for the first-round picks by caucusgoers; totals after a second round or “alignment” where supporters non-viable candidates go to a second choice; and the total number of delegates earned (technically “State Delegate Equivalents”) for each candidate. It was an ambitious undertaking for what was already a complicated process. Apparently precinct captains planned to use an app to communicate their totals to headquarters quickly and efficiently, but it wasn’t fully tested and wasn’t working properly. There didn’t seem to be a good backup plan, phones were jammed, and the things went downhill from there.

The primary failure was clearly operational. Even the most brilliant crisis response wouldn’t have solved the problem, yet it could have ameliorated some of the resulting coverage and reputation damage. Here’s where Iowa officials ran afoul of the crisis PR playbook.

Get in front of the story

When things go wrong, it helps to get in front of the story. Ideally, you offer concrete information about an unfolding situation. But when that’s not possible, it’s better to tell media and stakeholders when to expect the information rather than leaving them hanging. As time dragged on Monday evening, cable news stations were left with hours of airtime to fill and virtually no updates. Nature hates a vacuum, and so does the media. There was speculation about what was causing the delay, some of it irresponsible. When the party eventually told the press that full results would not be coming that evening, no one was happy, but at least media outlets could shift gears and plan accordingly.

Be careful and sensitive with language

The Iowa Democratic party initially communicated about the situation as delays became apparent Monday evening. The language was vague and not particularly reassuring. The first statement blamed the delay on “quality control checks” – strange, sanitized words that suggest a factory assembly line or bureaucratic doublespeak. They did not inspire confidence. A later comment specified “inconsistencies” in vote totals, which raised more questions than it answered and to some overwrought political junkies, implied shenanigans. Finally the party communications director released a statement that explained the problem with greater clarity and described the failure of the app.

“This is simply a reporting issue. The app did not go down, and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

The statement was better than earlier comments, but it came very late and was short on specifics. It focused a bit too much on what the problem wasn’t, rather than what was  happening and when the information would be available.

Make a trusted spokesperson accessible

Even when concrete information is lacking, access to an organization representative can engender trust with media and stakeholders. This is why crisis experts counsel clients that the designated crisis manager and the media spokesperson should never be one and the same. When the stuff hits the fan, phones are blowing up and rumors are flying, the crisis team is firefighting and cannot give updates. It helps to have a dedicated person with inside access offer regular bulletins, even if those updates are just about future updates.

There’s also education to be done. At a time when election security is paramount, the Iowa officials missed a chance to inform less sophisticated audiences about how truly hack-proof the caucus process is. It’s not like a primary, and it doesn’t happen through technology. It happens out in the open, precinct captains record everything on paper, and the votes are verifiable. I didn’t fully realize that until I happened to hear a third-party pundit explain the process on a radio show. The technical glitch was maddening, sure, but it wasn’t a security threat. Yet I don’t think anyone we heard that from the party itself.

Apologize

Another classic step to clarify and improve a crisis situation is to accept or assign responsibility for the problem and apologize. In the Iowa case, some responsibility rests with the app developers, but ultimately it’s with the caucus organizers in the state party. A Tuesday afternoon statement from Iowa Democratic party head Troy Price did offer an on-air apology, calling the delay “unacceptable.” Price hit a few defensive notes, but I give him points for the sincerity of his delivery and his messaging around process’s importance and the preservation of data security and accuracy.

“My number one priority has been on ensuring the accuracy and the integrity of the results and we have been working all night to be in the best position to report results. The bottom line is we hit a stumbling block on the back end of the reporting of the data but . . . we know this data is accurate.”

Describe the fix

Typically a crisis situation begins to resolve when the responsible entities announce how they will remedy the issue. A faulty product is recalled and redesigned, an executive is fired, or damages paid. In this instance, the state party chairman promised a thorough investigation into the matter, which is the appropriate first step. We may also see his resignation once the dust settles. That would show that someone is taking responsibility and enable the party and the process to move on, at least theoretically. But the true fix may well be a change in the Democratic primary calendar. Of course, no one from the party is saying it out loud, but Iowa’s first-place status is in jeopardy, and there’s probably nothing the state can do about that.

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