A contested presidential election could be an unavoidable minefield for executives and communicators, with employees primed to punish companies for missteps, according to an update to the Edelman Trust Barometer.
Nearly three-quarters of staff at large companies said they expect employers to be ready to respond if there’s no clear election winner, according to an online survey that queried 1,500 people from October 20-23. That percentage was higher with young employees, as 82% of those aged 18 to 34 expect companies to deal with a delay.
A possible contested election has been on clients’ radar for a while, said Russell Dubner, Edelman’s U.S. president and CEO, as pundits predict that a winner is unlikely to be determined on November 3.
“I think our leading clients have been thinking about this for a few months, and as the election got closer and the likelihood of different outcomes became a little more clear, we saw a broader set of clients making sure they were prepared,” he said.
The goal of the study was to help clients fine-tune responses as Election Day drew closer, Dubner added.
“What was incredibly clear among employees is that silence isn’t an option,” he said.
Yet because the issue is literally partisan, the question is what should CEOs and communications executives say. The answer, according to the survey, is not much. While employees expect companies to respond to a contested election, they don’t want them to issue a broad statement.
More than six in 10 (61%) said their employers could alienate them by issuing a public statement about a disputed presidential election. That sentiment is shared by the population in general, with 67% of people saying companies should stay silent about a contested election.
The solution, according to the survey and the advice Edelman is giving to clients, is to take a C-SPAN — as opposed to MSNBC or Fox News — approach and “create a respite from the partisan rancor,” Dubner said.
“I would say, comms needs to focus on the process and not the outcome,” he said. “I think outside that it’s very bespoke to that leader and to that company and to their proximity to anything that unfolds.”
Specifically, the survey found that more than half (52%) of employees want their companies to advocate for a calm and fair process and (52%) to create a safe workplace. Only 24% want CEOs to speak publicly and advocate for a winner.
“For clients, a lot of this is about helping them figure out the right balance,” Dubner added. “It should be about understanding employees first and foremost and where they are coming from and how that matches and intersects with the [company’s] values.”
But if employers get that balance wrong, employees won’t be shy about calling them out publicly. Forty-seven percent said that the way their employer communicates about a contested election will affect their loyalty to a company. Forty-five percent said it would change their willingness to recommend the organization to others, and 38% said they would take to social media or engage in workplace protests if a company botches a response.
Edelman is taking its own advice in preparing for the possibility of a contested election. It held an all-staff meeting last Thursday with Dubner, other agency executives and leading Republican Party election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, with plans for a followup meeting on Wednesday.
“We’re making sure we touch base almost every day, and we’re also having outside experts, the foremost experts on election law, who understand the play by play if this were to be contested, speak,” said Dubner.
This article first appeared on prweek.com.