With the Nov. 8 midterm elections fast approaching, officials say they’re busy combating misinformation about electoral processes and voting results, and not that such falsehoods sow distrust of the election process.
In Collier County, Fla., in the southwest part of the state that includes the Gulf Coast city of Naples, Trish Robertson, APR, is using every communications tool at her disposal to help restore voters’ trust. A self-proclaimed “elections geek,” she was hired by Collier County in 2013 and now serves as PR officer for Jennifer J. Edwards, the Collier County Supervisor of Elections.
Robertson says she has worked hard to verify social media accounts for the office, so that county residents will know the accounts and the information they provide are credible. On Twitter, she helps Edwards communicate clearly about voting. Using hashtags such as “#CollierVotesLocal” and “#TrustedInfo2022,” the tweets convey messages such as “Election Day is Nov. 8 and polls will be open from 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Register to vote, update your voter information and request your Vote-by-Mail ballot at http://CollierVotes.gov!”
On Mondays, she sends “Meet the Staff” tweets that introduce members of the Supervisor of Elections’ office to the public.
To reach young constituents, Robertson produces playful, short videos on her personal TikTok account — with the OK of her supervisors. In one, she faces the camera with a genial expression while text appears onscreen: “Spending all year telling people why voting in midterm elections is so important,” it reads. As in a silent movie, her lips move but we hear only piano music. Robertson then plays the part of a voter responding with the text: “I only vote in presidential elections — they are more exciting!” The video ends with Robertson’s face distorted by a TikTok filter to appear like an angry hobgoblin.
@itstrishthedish VOTE IN YOUR LOCAL ELECTIONS! #election2022 #floridacheck #elections #pov ♬ ylang ylang – 🏻 • Friends
She also hosts “transparency tours” of the office and responds to public-record requests from constituents.
Here, Robertson shares more with PRsay about what she has been doing to help promote truth and the facts in an era of misinformation.
When did you start seeing an increase in election-related misinformation and untruths?
It was during the 2020 election. We started seeing false claims about deep states, that the election is already decided, already rigged, [about] electronic-voting systems being hacked, misinformation about mail-in voting, and that mass amounts of voter fraud were going to occur.
In the state of Florida, at least, we’ve been doing vote-by-mail for decades and have never had any issues with it. It’s a secure way of voting. It allowed people, during COVID, to have options [for how] to vote. But people were unfamiliar with it; they were skeptical. There were already all these other pieces of misinformation out there that added fuel to the fire.
After the election, we were inundated with public-records requests. And individuals asking for data that doesn’t exist. And then that frustrates the user who’s requesting these records, because they think we’re hiding something. And it’s just not true.
One great for-instance is we were being inundated with [requests for] a report called a “cast-vote records report,” an Excel sheet of all the votes that came through. People were asking for those records, but they were also asking for things like the serial number of the tabulator and a time stamp, things that don’t exist in that report.
And the reason [that information is not included] is you could take a report with that information and a couple of other publicly available documents and figure out how people voted. The report doesn’t contain information like that. When we send them this report and all it has is information they really don’t care about, they get skeptical and they get frustrated with us.
Our goal now is to perform a general election for the midterm. We have obligations and priorities in place and we are very good at communicating them to the public.
When did you and the election leaders sit down to discuss a plan for getting the right information out to the public?
There’s been a big effort among all supervisors, at least in the state of Florida, and I think nationally, to [try to earn the public’s] trust in election officials when it comes to elections and voting. Don’t pay attention to some meme you see on Facebook or Twitter. Call us. Come and learn about our process. Come to our public meetings, where we conduct demonstrations of how the voting equipment works.
Between 2021 and 2022, we’ve done a lot to show we are the trusted [sources of] information. A couple of examples are that we went from having a “dot com” on our website address to a “dot gov,” to help not only secure our website, but to show folks that we aren’t just some advocacy group or third party or special interest group that has election information. We are the government agency that will provide correct info.
Another process we went through was securing verifications of our social media. So, when you go to our Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as our Instagram page, we’ve got the blue checkmarks there that show we are the verified and trusted source. That’s the communication we try to get out to voters. If you don’t see a blue checkmark next to it, then it’s not us. Come to us first.
How did your TikTok account come about?
The TikTok account is my personal account. When we do Facebook posts and Twitter posts, I speak on behalf of the office. On TikTok, I have a little more flexibility. I want to still be professional. But I also want people to pay attention to what I’m saying about election misinformation. I like to show off what our office does.
On TikTok, there is a trend with this song about corn. People will take the corn song and they’ll say their favorite thing — maybe it’s their boyfriend, or their favorite wine, or their favorite restaurant or fast-food chain — and it has the background of the corn song.
Well, I did that for our website. And one of the things I point out [is that the Collier County Supervisor of Elections site has] got everything you need, including all of your elected, trusted election officials. Doing stuff like that [TikTok video] has helped with engagement.
It’s something that I do for fun. If it was ever to become valuable, then we would go ahead and have our office start to play on it a little bit more.
Our election supervisor and my direct supervisor know this is out there. I’ve shown them the TikToks. They support it.
There’s a playful, humorous tone to TikTok videos. How are you mindful of the tone?
You have to know your audience. Here in Collier County, our demographic is seniors. That’s who many of our voters are. On TikTok, I’m hoping to hit younger audiences here in Collier, if they’re paying attention. But I try to keep it broad.
I did one [TikTok video] about voting by mail… and about [MyPillow founder] Mike Lindell and some of the stuff he’s put out there that’s just wrong and has caused us to have an increase in public-records requests.
These are issues being faced not only throughout the state of Florida, but throughout the entire country. I’m hoping that [our message] will resonate beyond Florida and our community here in Collier County.
Do you have a social media person helping you create your TikTok videos?
It’s something that I’m doing myself. I created my personal TikTok account to research [the platform]. It started off with just observing things. I try to learn as much as I can, so that in the event we go on live with our office, I’ll be prepared.
TikTok is a fun and light way to communicate whatever messages you’re passionate about. For me, personally, I’m passionate about getting the facts out there about elections and making sure people understand that we are public servants. We signed up for a job and we’re just doing that job.
Which of your initiatives have you found most effective?
In 2021, we started noticing election misinformation starting to spiral out of control here in our local community. We did some paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram with images of our staff processing vote-by-mail ballots, testing voting equipment, showing the security behind elections. And it was more about tone. People relate more to humor and sarcasm, especially on social media. Like, “Hey, did you see this meme on social media? Guess what? It’s fake.”
We don’t want to come off as elitist. We don’t want to come off as stuffy. We want to come off as real individuals and to be more conversational about elections. And I think that’s been effective on social media, as well as imagery of behind-the-scenes and of our actual staff, introducing our audience to our staff members.
On an individual level, how can communicators help stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation?
An FAQ document is a great way to debunk [falsehoods]. Sometimes, it can be daunting to track that kind of information, but be as transparent as possible about your process, even if it means saying something that people may not want to hear. Give what the truth is, the reason behind the decision and stand by it.
Communications people need to research, research, research. Understand what the issues are.
John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director and editor-in-chief of its award-winning publication, Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994. For more resources on misinformation and disinformation, please visit PRSA’s Voices4Everyone initiative at this link.[Photo credit: raw-pixel.com]