9. What If Something Goes Wrong?Crisis Communications

By now you’ve created a strategic and thorough communications plan. You have a clear sense of what needs to happen when, how, and to whom. Now is also a good time to ensure that you’ve assessed your risks and adopted technical and operational best practices to mitigate them. In addition to consulting a trusted security trainer, you can also reference resources like the Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook, the Digital First Aid Kit, the Surveillance Self Defense Guide, and others for basic guidance on how to limit your information and communication related risks. These resources won’t cover all of your organization’s needs perfectly, but they’re a great place to start to help build out your holistic communications plan.

But what will you do when events deviate from the plan?

Inevitably, you will encounter roadblocks, mistakes, and crises. This is true of any communications plan, but especially true when doing work that might be perceived as threatening to existing power structures. Moving to more credible and democratic elections doesn’t happen without entrenched interests putting up a fight, and it can get ugly.

Make a Plan

You won’t be able to plan for every possible crisis, but you can and should plan for the most likely ones.

Remember when we said your foes would be working just as hard – and in most cases have significantly more resources – to enact their own goals? This is the time to think through how they might do that. Will they put out disinformation about your organization and its goals or sources of funding? Will they come after you or your colleagues with personal attacks or smears? Will they try to flood the airwaves and social media channels with disinformation about the elections so your message can’t break through? Do your employees or supporters face the risk of arrest? Will your internet access or mobile service be restricted or suspended? Will they refuse to grant your organization and/or observers accreditation to observe? Will they threaten or take action to shut down your organization?

Think back to previous crises or attacks on your organization or organizations similar to yours. Where did the threat come from? How was it carried out? How did the organization in crisis respond, and what worked or didn’t work about that response?

Since you don’t know exactly what is coming your way, it’s normal for your crisis plan to be a bit vague. But try to make general outlines for how you’ll handle each type of crisis or attack. If you think it is a possibility that the government will release disinformation about your funding or leadership, for example, think through what messages will work best to combat that, what prominent people you can have lined up and ready to vouch for you, what materials you’ll need to distribute, whether you’ll need to activate your supporters to show up, etc. You can also take preemptive measures in some cases, like having a clear explanation on your website about where your funding comes from and how it is spent, if you think that is a likely line of attack. That way, you can point to the public information and you don’t look like you were hiding something or acting suspicious by putting up the information hastily in response to attacks.

Prepare What You Can

A crisis by definition is fast-moving and high-stress. It’s worth spending time at the beginning of a campaign preparing your crisis materials and preparing your staff and validators while you have the time and space to be more relaxed and thoughtful.

  • Create your materials. Prepare sample blog posts, fact sheets, frequently asked questions (FAQs) for reporters, press releases, emails, text messages, and/or social media content. There will inevitably be placeholders and edits that need to be made in the moment, but if you have the outlines and templates already done, you will feel more in control and able to respond more quickly in the moment.
  • Appoint and prepare your spokespeople. Have a clear plan and internal understanding of who can speak on behalf of the organization in a crisis situation. Do all staff have the authority to speak directly to reporters or post on social media? Or do they need to refer all inquiries to an organizational spokesperson? If the spokesperson is unavailable (out of the country, in jail, etc.), who is next in line to serve as spokesperson? Once this plan is clearly laid out to your staff, spend some time training and preparing those who have been designated as spokespeople. Practice your messaging and responses with them so the responses sound natural. Try asking them hard questions and “gotcha” questions so they get comfortable responding in hostile situations.
  • Line up your validators. If you believe there is a realistic chance that you, your leadership, or your organization will be attacked for being un-credible, corrupt, foreign agents, or otherwise untrustworthy, your own denials or responses may not be enough. In that case you’ll need to line up and prepare any third-party validators and influencers that you believe will be willing to speak up on your behalf and vouch for your good values and intentions. Approach these people early on and see if they will be willing to join a “rapid response” list, then give them materials and briefings on what to do and what to say if they are needed.
  • Secure your communications. If you think your mobile or internet access will be restricted or blocked at a crucial time, or if you think your emails or digital communications are in danger of being hacked, take the necessary digital safety precautions. Train your staff on best practices for keeping safe online. Have a plan for getting your message and content out when the internet or mobile networks are disabled.
  • Prepare international support. It might be hard for your message to break through if social media or state media is being flooded by mis- or disinformation. In that case, you might want to rely on organized diaspora communities or international influencers to get your message through on social media or through other trusted, unofficial channels. Let them know ahead of time what kinds of attacks you expect, why they should be skeptical of them, and how they can help you fight back against mis- or disinformation and attacks. You want them to feel empowered to stand up for the truth or come to your defense if needed.

Tracking and Anticipating Attacks

In some cases, your opposition or attackers may be using easily-accessed tools and platforms to plan their attacks or opposition to your organization and/or the issues you care about. You should be actively monitoring these online spaces in order to anticipate the messaging and tactics of what is coming your way, and be able to get ahead of it and prepare for it tas much as possible.

Set up a dummy account in the relevant chat rooms or platforms. Depending on your country context, some places where your opposition might be organizing are Reddit, Twitter, Facebook groups, 4chan, 8chan, Gab, YouTube, or WhatsApp. Listen to and monitor what people are saying. If you start to see some messages or tactics gain momentum, prepare your response. It can also be an effective tactic if you warn relevant audiences that this argument or attack may be coming, and why they shouldn’t believe it. It’s harder to disprove once the argument is out there, but if you can tell people to disregard disinformation ahead of time, they may be more skeptical of it or more likely to reject it.

Advance warning can be an especially effective tactic with the media – or, if the state is doing the attacking and the media is state-run, an effective tactic with international media. Preparing your response ahead of time for likely disinformation, where it might come from, what form it might take, and why they should distrust it, can lead to the media not reporting on harmful disinformation, or at the very least checking with you about its truthfulness first.

Call Out the Liars, Not the Lies

There is some debate over whether repeating a particular lie or piece of disinformation in order to debunk it further reinforces the lie itself. In general, you should try to avoid repeating your opponents’ messages.

This doesn’t mean you should ignore attacks or lies, however. You should be intentional and conscientious of how you’re responding. If you need to debunk something, begin by stating the truth and your own messaging, making clear what you are responding to.

Two women interviewed in a television studio.
NDI Kosovo Photo.

Another effective tactic is to ignore the lie, but focus on the liars who are perpetuating it. If you discredit the source of the information, it can be more effective than trying to debunk the lie itself. It can also weaken the cause of the threat, rather than having to respond to each new lie every time. If the source remains trusted and in good standing, you’ll have a new crisis every time they attack you. If you can work to make them a less trusted messenger, their future attacks will have less power.

You can also try to have the content or accounts removed or deactivated if they are on social media platforms. Get the contact information for a representative of Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms operating in your country if they have an office there. Establish a relationship with them at the outset of your campaign, and get clear guidance from them on what to do if you see false or abusive information about yourself or your cause online. Review the terms of service of the major platforms so you know on what grounds you can recommend content or a user be removed from a platform. Get a commitment from your contact at the company that they will help you take down or flag harmful or slanderous information. (You can also use these relationships to get tips on how to better optimize your own social content.) This may be easier to secure if you are able to buy ads on the platform (tech companies are for-profit, at the end of the day), but you should reach out to them and establish these relationships even if you don’t have the resources to buy ads.

Use your best judgment about when to engage at all or when to ignore. If there are just a handful of trolls without many followers saying the same thing over and over in their own little echo chamber, you probably can ignore it. You don’t need to bring additional attention outside of their circles to the attacks or lies. If, however, you see it breaking out of the echo chamber of the original trolls, being picked up in larger circles or by mainstream news outlets, you need to act immediately.

Spot the Bot

Fake, automated social media accounts, aka bots, are becoming an increasingly popular tool for attacking organizations, spreading disinformation, and generally being annoying and wasting your time.

Signs that the account is actually a bot:

  • The bio or profile picture are suspect. Look at the bio of the account – does it sound like a real person? Is there any personal information in it? Is the profile picture of a real person or a blank silhouette? If it’s a silhouette, that strongly increases the chances it’s a bot. If it’s a real person, do a reverse image search of the picture. If the picture appears frequently across the internet, it is probably a fake account.
  • The account’s posting behavior is suspect. Is the account posting more frequently an even an energetic person would likely be able to (for example, more than 50 times per day)? [A widely applied benchmark, from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda initiative, is an average of more than 50 posts or tweets a day.] Is it retweeting what look to be other fake accounts with frequency? Is it posting political propaganda or fake news? Is it posting commercial or advertising messages frequently? Or retweeting messages in a number of different languages? These are all signs the account may be fake.
  • The accounts followers are suspect. Does the account have a high percentage of followers with silhouette avatars or other signs that they are fake? Did the account receive a large number of followers in a very short period of time? Is the account following a huge amount of accounts but has almost no followers itself? These are signs that the account is likely to be a bot.
  • Check https://botcheck.me/ or https://botometer.iuni.iu.edu. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to analyze each account to determine if it’s a bot, run the profile through one of these bot detection tools to see if it’s likely to be a bot.

If the account is fake, report or flag it on the platform for violating the terms of service. Feel free to block or mute the fake account, and don’t waste any time arguing with the bot.

Responding to Crises of Your Own Making

It happens to the best of us – sometimes the crisis is something we cause ourselves. Maybe the leadership got caught doing something wrong, maybe a tweet was offensive or insensitive, maybe the newsletter went out with inaccurate information. These things will happen. It’s how you handle them that people will remember.

On 28 August 2019, Shahrul Aman, Bersih 2.0's former acting chairperson was called to give a witness statement after lodging a police report.
On 28 August 2019, Shahrul Aman, Bersih 2.0’s former acting chairperson was called to give a witness statement after lodging a police report. BERSIH 2.0 Photo.
  • Don’t obsess over the mistake. Yes, it would be nice if there was a time machine you could take and not hit “send” on that email, but wishing will not make it so. Accept the mistake, and focus on the response and making things right.
  • Listen to the people who told you about the mistake. You may have said or published something not realizing it hurt people’s feelings or offended a person or group of people. Instead of shrugging off their complaints, listen to what they are saying. That doesn’t mean you have to accept their critique, but you should take it seriously and if you have inadvertently made a mistake, admit it, and correct it.
  • Apologize sincerely. If you or your organization did something wrong, admit it and apologize. Don’t apologize “if people were offended.” If you published something offensive, acknowledge that and explain in your apology what you’ve learned and what you’re doing to ensure it never happens again. People are much more likely to remain favorable toward your work and organization if they believe you are authentic and are genuinely committed to learning from your mistakes.
  • Take any necessary steps to address the problem. Depending on the nature of the crisis, this might mean implementing a better proofreading system, hiring a staff member from an underrepresented group, or even firing the president of the organization. Take meaningful and appropriate action to ensure the crisis doesn’t happen again.
  • Assume anything you write or say will be published. Private emails get hacked, private conversations get recorded and leaked. Don’t write or say anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable being published or broadcast. Choose your words carefully and don’t casually insult your co-workers, coalition partners, or opponents. Don’t use offensive language, racist or misogynistic slurs, or anything else that could tarnish your reputation if it got out.

For additional crisis communication planning guidelines – particularly in response to cyber incidents – take a look at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Election Cyber Incident Communications Plan Template. Although developed for a political party audience, the template is a great resource for any group looking to develop a structured crisis communications plan in response to cyber incidents, such as disinformation or hacked websites or social media accounts.

YOUR TURN: Threats and Crises

Make a list of the most likely threats or crises you are likely to face. These don’t have to be very specific, but general types of threats or lines of attack.

For each type of crisis you might face, make a list of messages and materials you would need in a rapid-response situation and assign a person to prepare them by a deadline.

Make a list of staff spokespeople and third-party validators you will need to help you in times of crisis.

Schedule time with your spokespeople and potential validators where you can practice crisis scenarios. Drill them with hard questions until they are confident staying on message and responding naturally.

Thanks to Melissa Ryan of Ctrl Alt-Right Delete for her expertise in this section.