how to survive an election count: a handy guide for comms professionals
You may have spotted that we’ve had an election or two of late in the UK. And there’s more to come, of course. Communicating the results is one of the most important things a local government comms pro will do. It can be a nervy old time so here’s a useful guide to help you.
by Anna Caig
An overnight election count is one of the most exciting, rewarding and challenging experiences you will ever have working as a local authority communications professional.
I have no shame in admitting that the 2015 election counts (an overnight general count, followed by the local the next day), when the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister, amongst other attractions, brought over 150 members of the media from all over the world to Sheffield, ranks up there with giving birth to my children as one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
The need for precise organisation and scrupulous attention to detail, with a host of unknown factors that will come into play over the course of the night. A demanding and increasingly knackered set of customers to look after. Intense scrutiny of your work, your team, your authority and your city. All topped off with a hefty helping of sleep deprivation. It’s a test of endurance that strikes fear into the heart of many a hardened comms manager.
I am lucky. I have a superb team around me who make the vast majority of the experience a pleasure. And the truth is that, following the initial surprise of May’s announcement this year, and politics aside, there were a good few grins and eye-twinkles in our office. The count is coming.
Yes, we’re weird.
But here are some hard-earned top tips on how to get through it all successfully, and maybe even enjoy it. Huge thanks to the good people of my new favourite Facebook group, Public Sector Comms Headspace, for their additional ideas and advice.
1. Plan, plan, plan
This is the golden rule. If you’re like us, then your communications service will have the dual responsibilities of announcing the results to the public, and running the media centre. These are two very different jobs, requiring some very different skills, but both benefit from some thorough forward planning.
Get organised as early as you can. Allocate election night roles according to each team member’s expertise and preferences, and make sure everyone is absolutely clear what they will be responsible for. Whatever can be prepared in advance, do prepare in advance. For example, we put together our result web pages as drafts, with all the information except final numbers, ready to go. Even our tweets are ready to be copied and pasted.
There is a lot of waiting around at a count, but when you have to act, you usually have to act fast. And you’ll be glad you left as little as possible to the last minute.
Have a preparatory site visit, and a map of exactly what will be happening where at the venue. Make sure you know what information you need for any accreditations, and any security restrictions and deadlines, in advance. Keep a detailed project plan, and hold frequent catch-ups with key members of the team to make sure everything is on track.
2. Manage expectations
Or as my brilliant former colleague put it: “Rules!”
Are journalists allowed onto the count floor? Accompanied or unaccompanied? What should they do if they want to grab a particular person to interview? How much notice are you likely to be able to give them of results announcements? Will they have to provide their own refreshments? Which accreditations let people into which areas?
The night runs much more smoothly if everyone knows what to expect in advance.
This particularly relates to managing the media centre. Yes, journalists will still push it. Our friends in the media are not known for their patience, and election counts generally involve a lot of waiting around. I suppose the hours wouldn’t pass as quickly without having the odd journalist to rugby tackle to the ground as they head for the counting tables (you think I’m joking?) But generally people are reasonable if it’s been made clear what the arrangements are. Include this information in your emails beforehand, and in your media pack, so there is no room for doubt.
3. Bring plenty of snacks
This one should be top of the list really. It certainly generated the most discussion on the Facebook group. How much Haribo is it possible to eat without actually vomiting?
Whether it’s industrial quantities of sweets, biscuits or a more healthy option, you will need plenty of calories to keep your energy levels up over the course of the night. Some people swear by coffee or Red Bull (other caffeinated beverages are available). Personally, I find these make me feel sick after about 1am. Whereas I am surprisingly fine after approximately 100 tonnes of chocolate.
4. Be nice
Everyone is annoying after 24 hours without sleep. Literally everyone.
You will see the best and the very worst in your colleagues (as well as the media) during an overnight election count. The importance of being nice to each other when you’re frazzled and sleep deprived cannot be overstated. Even if someone gets a result figure wrong. Even if they hog the Haribo. Still be nice.
This is especially important if you are managing others. There is a profound insight into the quality of a manager’s character in how they behave towards those in more junior roles at 4am at an election count. Those who are able to overcome their own tiredness and stress, to show how much they value and appreciate the hard nocturnal work of their team, will be long respected. In fact, I would like to put forward managing at an election count as the ultimate assessment centre activity when recruiting for any role leading a team of people.
5. Expect the unexpected
The best laid plans, and all that. Be ready to deal with unexpected events, and trust that, with the right tools for the job, you will be able to handle it.
Imagine yourself in a crisis situation, and plan to have all the things you will need with you at the count venue. Really simple things like arranging access to a computer and a printer, in case of unforeseen events that require preparation for a more formal media briefing.
Plan who your spokespeople will be on different potential subject areas. And be clear on whose role it will be to lead on any crisis, or even just mildly surprising, communications requirements that may arise.
6. Wear your most comfortable shoes
This was probably the best piece of advice I was given before my first election count. The media centre at our usual venue is on raked rows of bleachers around an athletics track. I don’t know how many miles I walk, or how much altitude I climb, over the course of a night. But I certainly feel like I’ve run a marathon. (I do remember, in one of those slightly hazy, sleep-deprived, quiet moment conversations, arranging with the venue manager to have a zipwire installed to at least make getting down easier). Indeed, one great idea from the facebook group was to update twitter with the impressive pedometer counts of some of the busier members of the team.
Even in my most sensible Clarks, my feet are throbbing by the time the last result is announced. Don’t even think about wearing those heels.
7. Don’t forget about the next day
Plan attractive early morning outside broadcast locations to offer the media, and a press officer who’s had some sleep to staff them if necessary. If you can, keep a couple of your team off the overnight count staffing plan, so they’re fresh the next day to deal with this, and the results enquiries. As well as the rest of Friday’s work.
It is also possible you could need these people to take over at the venue if repeated recounts prolong the count into the next morning, and other tired team members are flagging.
8. Remember why you’re all there
Some members of the press, not all mind, but some, would have you believe that a count is a show put on purely for their benefit. That they should have access to all areas and all people, all of the time.
But the truth is that you are there to count an election, and they are there to observe and report on this process.
When an unusually obnoxious, knackered journalist is shouting that “Every other authority in the country can tell me when their result will be…” keep your game face on. Be polite and professional, of course. But you are under no obligation to arrange proceedings for their convenience, and the truth is that you both know it.
9. Get the off the record version of this post
There is a lot of good advice in this post. There is a lot of good advice not in this post. Some things it’s just not possible to write in a post for a public website. If this is your first count, talk to people who’ve been there and done that, and get the lowdown. Almost every one of them will have some advice and a story I couldn’t possibly repeat here.
10. Keep your poker face on
We are politically restricted. We do not care who wins.
I have managed communications at counts where some monumental things have been happening to the political landscape, both locally and nationally. If you have strong feelings either way, then take yourself off to the loo for a few deep breaths, and compose yourself. At the count, you are in a room with candidates from all parties, not to mention the assembled media. Conceal, don’t feel.
11. Milk it
You have a captive audience. The people you spend a significant proportion of your professional life trying to sell stories in to are stuck here in a room with you, with very little to do, often for many hours.
Include plenty of facts, figures and information in your media pack. Make it easy for them to present your city in a positive light.
And chat with the journalists. Get to know them. Find out what stories they’re on the lookout for beyond election night. Tempting as it may be to relax with your colleagues in the quiet hours, don’t waste this golden opportunity to build relationships. There will be many hours at a count where everyone is bored, and everyone is fed up. If you take the time to have a chat (and even better, share your haribo) it will reap dividends for you long after the ballot boxes have been packed away.
12. Enjoy it
Forgive me for going slightly sentimental for a moment here. An election count is an amazing thing. The first time I stood in that hall, seeing the boxes come in carrying hundreds of thousands of individual votes from over 200 polling stations in every nook, cranny and corner of our city, it was genuinely moving. Voting is very easy for people in Britain, at least in the practical sense. Most of us live within a couple of streets of a polling station, and have the luxury of taking for granted the ease with which we can mosey on down and put an X in that box.
That’s not true in many countries around the world. It only became true for most women in this country in 1928.
There is something about working at an election count that brings it all home. It is democracy in action and, even if just for a few hours, anything could happen.
Or ignore the cheesiness of all that, and just enjoy it for the camaraderie and the chocolate.
Enormous luck with your own election counts, and please do let me know any further insights into how to make it all run smoothly via twitter @AnnaCaig
Anna Caig is the External Affairs Manager at Sheffield City Council, which includes managing the media relations team
image via The State Library of Western Australia