Kaylin Trychon
Kaylin Trychon

Since details emerged of disinformation and election interference in the 2016 election, we have been bombarded with assurances that 2020 would be different. But after the technological meltdown that was the Iowa Caucus, Americans are left with even more doubt.

Here’s a quick snapshot of where things stand as of late — we have candidates still refusing to disclose basic details about their security service providers, growing distrust in the democratic process (Iowa Caucus app fail), and misinformation running rampant on social media. You know that infamous “hold my beer” punchline? It is currently playing out in real time.

If last night is any indication of what is to come, campaigns, election officials and state representatives need to adjust their communications playbook… and quick. 

Let’s look at what went wrong:

Response Time Matters — We live in an 24-7, always-on, always connected world. Americans are used to having information at their fingertips and expect updates in real time. 

As rumblings of technological issues involving the Iowa Caucus results began to leak late Monday evening, attention quickly shifted from curious to concerned and accusations started to fly. The Iowa Democratic Party was slow to respond, failed to provide an adequate level of detail and did not reassure the American public it was capable of producing accurate results. 

Additionally, Shadow Inc., the application development company responsible for creating the application used during the Caucus, remained silent for hours upon hours. Its first communications came out Tuesday afternoon — nearly 16 hours after initial reports tying Caucus troubles to the app. 

Rule number one in crisis communications: Response time matters - it will make or break your crisis communications strategy.

Messaging, Messaging, Messaging — During a crisis, staying on message is non-negotiable. Holding statements and topline messaging are often crafted and agreed upon in advance of a crisis situation in order to streamline the approval process during an actual crisis. 

Looking back at the response timeline, it is clear that neither party had aligned to develop a joint holding statement or messaging in the event of a — highly likely —  technical failure. This left Shadow Inc., the application development company, and the Iowa Democratic Party exposed to increased public shaming and scrutiny. 

Rule number two: Messaging is the foundation of your crisis response strategy. Holding statements should be informative, actionable and honest. 

Practice Makes Ready — You can never predict a crisis, but you can be prepared for one. In today’s society, it is table stakes to have a practiced communications plan in place for technical failures or security incidents. Everything is connected and everything is vulnerable. These issues are GOING to come up. 

The lack of transparent communications and failure to release the Caucus results in a timely fashion led me to believe the Iowa Democratic Party did not anticipate, nor did it prepare, for this situation. There was no playbook in place for how to communicate and reassure the American public that the results of this Caucus could be trusted and would be legitimate. The Iowa Democratic Party should have been honest with its voters from the outset, laying all the facts out on the table — including that it knowingly declined an offer from the Department of Homeland Security to vet the application before use. 

Had they practiced a crisis response to a similar scenario, they would have identified several points of failure, including the need to have a clear course of action in place to tabulate the results in the wake of a technical failure.  

Rule number three: Practice makes perfect. Practicing crisis scenarios needs to be a best practice. It is the only way to identify your weaknesses and mitigate them ahead of primetime. 

It’s 2020, technology isn’t perfect and it is going to fail. How we communicate during that failure is paramount. We cannot afford to make mistakes. As communicators, we need to hold ourselves accountable and we need to provide authentic, transparent and honest communications. This is especially true when the future of our democracy is at stake. 

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Kaylin Trychon is a cybersecurity communications expert and vice president at Rokk Solutions, a full-service, bipartisan public affairs firm. Prior to her role at Rokk Solutions, Kaylin worked at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services where she helped build the company’s cybersecurity brand.