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March 1, 2020

Developing a Crisis Communications Plan

The guide is available for download:

Five Steps for Creating a Crisis Communications Plan

During a crisis, it is critical for election offices to communicate pertinent information to internal and external stakeholders. The level of detail, urgency and involvement of various individuals and organizations may vary depending on the situation.



Step 1 – Develop an Internal Communications Plan

Internal communications plans assist with consistent messaging, help ensure internal understanding of the issue, and provide a clear system for handling concerns and questions from the public.

When developing your internal communications plan, consider the following:

  • How and when to brief elected officials, appointees, executive leadership, directors and managers

  • How and when to hold an all-hands staff meeting to maintain agency continuity and accuracy of internal communications

  • Ensure that everyone is briefed on the agency’s plan for who makes decisions and any other emergency procedures

  • Include any available continuity plans and emergency procedures, or where to find them in the plan.

  • Plan to assign someone to recap the meeting via email and/or messaging platform (webEOC, Teams, Google Chat, etc.)

  • Designate one person and a backup in your organization to communicate with the media

  • Develop language and include procedures for staff who may be responding to unofficial requests for information from the public (e.g., incoming calls to a public hotline)

  • Include and regularly review a list of internal and external stakeholders and their corresponding contact information

  • Identify and include contact information for agencies to establish and maintain interdepartmental communication and coordination

  • Build and include a schedule to update executive leadership and staff



Step 2 – Develop an External Communications Plan

The goal for an external communications plan during a crisis is communicating with the public and maintaining trust and confidence in your office and the election system.

When developing your external communications plan, consider including the following:

  • Establish clear, concise and consistent core messaging

    • As a trusted source of information, it is important to maintain clear and concise messaging across all channels of information

    • Ensure all staff is trained and have a clear understanding of the information that needs to be conveyed

  • Identify your audiences and determine their need for information. Potential audiences to keep in mind as you are crafting your plan:

    • Voters

    • Employees outside of the election office

    • Families of staff

    • Election workers

    • Vendors

    • Community organizations—especially those that conduct outreach to voters

    • Government (elected officials and agencies)

    • Candidates

    • News media

  • Create talking points for your audiences:

    • Ensure that talking points are brief, include plain language, and are not overly complicated

    • Include and regularly update a list of external stakeholders

  • Coordinate the release of information, keeping in mind:

    • There may be limited information about the incident or its potential impacts

    • You may be coordinating with external entities to address the situation

    • The facts may change as the situation develops and new information becomes available

    • Avoid communicating too much too soon – or too little too late.

    • Adjust messaging as needed to address new and emerging concerns from the public




Step 3 – Create External Communication Tools

External communication tools help election offices relay updates in a crisis and can help shape public opinion, trust and confidence. They help spread information quickly to a wide and diverse audience and dispel misinformation that threaten the voting and elections process.

Often, the external communication strategies used will depend on various factors. From the timing and severity of the crisis to which stakeholders may be involved. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to accessing the advantage of external communication, several external communication tools and samples are included in this section for consideration.

These include but are not limited to:

  • Email notifications

  • Media advisories or press releases

  • Press conference plans

  • Text messages or emergency alert notification system rollout

  • Social media


Work with Emergency Management Department or Agency

Consider fostering a relationship with your jurisdiction’s emergency management department or agency. Often, these offices already have in place external communication tools that your office can use in the event of a crisis.


Email Notifications

Email notifications are an excellent communication tool that can be used to reach a large audience and utilize a longer format to allow for additional information including important links to relevant websites and resources.


Media Advisories and Press Releases

Media advisories and press releases are news stories written by your office that are designed to give media and other readers details about your organization. The key differences between a media advisory and press release include the purpose, composition and timing. Knowing these differences will help your office build credibility and visibility.

The chart below illustrates the key differences between the two and our How to Write a Press Release from our Communications Resource Desk can help you get started crafting your own.

The key differences between a media advisory and press release include the purpose, composition, and timing. Knowing these differences will help your elections office build credibility and gaining the media’s attention in featuring the information your office would like to share with their audience.



Press Conferences

Hosting a press conference during a crisis can assist with delivering your consistent core message to multiple reporters at one event. Although crises move quickly, it is important to have a general plan for press conferences to maintain preparedness and continuity. Both media advisories and press releases can be used to support press conferences.

When planning your press conference, consider the following:

  • Scheduling – Schedule press conferences as soon as possible. Keep in mind that scheduling earlier in the day allows more time for the news to be distributed throughout the day.

  • Location – Select a meaningful location. Try to avoid using spaces with poor lighting and sound quality (e.g., warehouses, basements, or loud processing rooms).

  • Statements – Have a statement prepared that aligns with established core messaging and consider having subject matter experts on hand to help with communicating technical information.

  • Clarify – Announce a clear start and stop time, properly introduce speakers and advise if a question-and-answer session will take place

  • Closing – Adhere to clear start and stop times. If a question-and-answer session is held, keep an eye on the time, and alert reporters of the last question. Before leaving thank everyone for their time.



Social Media

Today, real-world catastrophes play out on social media in real time. Social media is an important channel for sharing urgent news and updates. Election offices can plan ahead by creating an official social media policy that documents communication strategies, so staff understand what protocol and approach to follow.

Make sure your social media policy includes the following:

  • An up-to-date internal emergency contact list

  • Guidance on accessing social account credentials

  • Guidelines for identifying the scope of potential crises

  • An approval process for response strategy

 During a crisis, leverage social media to:

  • Communicate updates to voters

  • Support voters who need help or information

  • Listen and learn about concerns, attitudes, and what people are saying about voting and elections

  • Fact-check information and correct rumors

  • Strategize for the medium-term

Social media should complement all other methods of communications. Context can shift quickly in a crisis, and scheduled posts may need to be paused or skipped altogether to avoid confusion.

It is important to remember that social media communications are generally considered public record and that an elections office should maintain the same professionalism on social media that it would in assisting a voter in any other setting.

Looking for inspiration? Check out these examples from the Arapahoe County Clerk & Recorder, Denver Elections Division, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder, Orange County Registrar, and Travis County Clerk.



Step 4 – Publish and Market External Communication Tools

Once external communication tools are prepared, begin publishing and marketing them. This is crucial for disseminating as widely as possible.

To inform voters and the public, the elections office can take an expansive approach to reach as many as possible. By distributing communication tools to trusted messengers, the elections office can leverage their reach and have an even greater impact.

Trusted messengers may include:

  • Media outlets (traditional and others)

  • Language community partners

  • Veterans’ groups

  • Disability community partners

  • State and local political parties

  • Advocacy groups

  • Professional organizations

  • Community-based organizations

  • Homeowner associations and neighborhood apps like NextDoor

  • Community centers

  • Cities and other political jurisdictions

  • Candidates

  • Elected officials



Step 5 – Analyze Feedback from External Audiences

Feedback from external audiences will let an elections office know if the crisis communications strategy was successful and whether something needs to be clarified or emphasized. Feedback can come from a variety of channels, including email, social media, phone calls, political parties or from other government agencies.

Collecting feedback is important for developing future communication strategies, improving the voter experience, and overall voter satisfaction levels. Consider assigning someone on your team to track the event as it unfolds and gather quick information regarding public sentiment. Social media analytics are a good starting point to quickly see levels of engagement and public sentiment.

Proper analysis provides an elections office with a better view of what needs to happen to be responsive to voters, build trust and confidence in the voting and election process, and reduce voter support cases. Election offices can restart the 5-step plan at any time while refining and updating strategies to reflect the feedback from external audiences.



Contact us to request assistance developing a crisis communications plan for your jurisdiction.



Download our Guide:

Crisis Communications Planning Guide (PDF)