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PR lessons from the Iowa Democratic Caucus

February 7, 2020

This week, the Iowa Democratic Caucuses kicked off the official beginning of voting in the leadup to the 2020 presidential election. 

And regardless of one’s political affiliations, anyone observing the caucuses could see what a mess they were. 

Thanks largely to untrained volunteers and untested tech, the event was a series of unforced errors—a what not to do for anyone putting on an event or campaign. 

In the aftermath of the caucus, we’ve identified a few elements that the Iowa Democratic Party messed up—and how we can use the lessons in our own work as communicators. 

So how can we learn lessons of our own through the tribulations of the IDP? Let us count the ways.

Don't think that the need for more data means there has to be an app. We hear from web development partners frequently that clients recognize the need for better data collection (important!) and often think that an app is the best way to get it (often not!). We think that’s because often, if business owners aren’t tech-savvy, they argue for what they’ve heard of. And everybody with a smart phone has heard of an app! But, while there’s certainly a need for better data collection for Democratic campaigns, there is no such need for tech in the voting process. Many tech experts have argued there’s no need for 21st century tech—which is more hackable and often confusing or unreliable—at the ballot box at all. 

Methods for data collection and ease of use are important considerations for businesses and marketers. We aren’t web developers, but we do know that buzzy concepts like apps can get thrown out by clients who don’t necessarily understand the value or expense of such a campaign. It’s on the industry professionals to lead the client in the right direction. In the case of the IDP, the development team at Shadow should have cautioned the IDP against using an app for the caucuses. 

Prepare. One of the largest problems was that the app, which was to be used as a method for sending the results to IDP HQ (not for voters to vote on), didn’t work. According to the makers of the app and the IDP, the app had a coding error that caused it to not work properly. However, if the IDP had conducted team-wide trial runs, they would have realized this before the day of the caucus, giving them time to retool their process to avoid the chaos and mitigate the PR disaster. 

In a year where the IDP was focused on releasing more data than even before, the party also didn’t prepare its volunteers for the additional time and brainpower that data collection and release would cause—especially because of the huge field of candidates in the 2020 primary. The Iowa caucuses are an incredibly complex process that includes an initial vote count for each candidate; a determination of which candidates have garnered at least 15% of the room and were therefore "viable"; and then a so-called realignment in which those voters for unviable candidates join the caucus groups of viable candidates. In an effort to increase transparency into the process, the IDP planned to release data from the first votes and the vote totals from realignment, as well as data on the final tallies. This all makes for a hugely complex process, even (especially?) for volunteers who have volunteered for years with the Iowa caucuses. 

If you’re preparing for an event or the launch of a public relations campaign (or, TBH, any work-oriented endeavor) the situation in Iowa is an argument for preparation—an argument for practicing the process all the way through before the day of. Prep will help identify pain points and how to navigate around them. 

Make plans for what to do if the worst-case scenario should happen. With the eyes of the country on the state, Iowa Democratic Party leaders should have outlined the worst-case scenario(s) and set clear instructions for how they and their volunteers should respond. While it’s not clear that those scenarios hadn’t been outlined with the leadership team, such instructions seem to not have trickled down to on-the-ground volunteers, some of whom didn’t download the app until the day of the event.

Not all of what happened in Iowa was the fault of the IDP and the app developer; internet trolls deliberately clogged the phone lines that volunteers were to use to report results if the app didn’t work. That’s really unfortunate, but given the fractured political climate, IDP leadership should have prepared for the possibility of this kind of sabotage, and kept the phone number a closely-guarded secret, had multiple phone lines, or another secure method for transmitting results. 

This is another lesson for businesses and communicators: always identify your worst-case scenario and have a plan for dealing with it, which you make sure everyone involved is prepped on. Hopefully you’ll never have to use that emergency plan, but better to have and not use it than the opposite. 

Set realistic goals and timelines. The caucuses were marred with moving timelines on when the public could expect vote tallies. This created a lack of faith in the process, and increased frustration from Democrats across the country. Instead of offering up a realistic timeline for final vote counts and the rationale, the goalposts kept moving. 

The valuable lesson here is that it’s better to be realistic and right than aim too high and have to publicly clarify yourself again. It’s a lesson that many communicators have had to learn the hard way, having to call journalists back with updates on delayed client launches. Sometimes the shift is out of the marketing team’s hands, but it’s still better to set a longer timeline and finish early than have to amend it after the fact. 

What other lessons can communicators learn from the 2020 Iowa Caucuses?