[E-voting] Draft Press Release

Bruce Clark ni at dna.ie
Thu Feb 12 16:08:41 GMT 2004

I'm not sure that drafting a press release (or rather, as it should be called, news release) in a discussion list is a good idea. A news release needs to be concise, factual and 'on message', so does not lend itself to being 'designed by committee'. I suggest that the ICTE form a small working group on media/PR who should draft all communications - if necessary, drafts (preferably no more than 2) could be circulated to the wider discussion list asking for comments to the authors, not the whole list. The working group should include at least one person with media/PR experience, somebody with a good understanding of the issues and the official spokesperson of the group.  I appreciate that democracy is a raison d'être of the ICTE but, as its membership expands, they need to trust core members to act on its behalf.  Grass roots credibility is a good asset to present to the media, but not at the expense of a coherent media strategy - remember we are up against the most powerful organ of the state, with fairly unlimited professional expertise and media opportunities at its command. 

I would also question whether media strategy should be discussed at all on an open discussion list such as this. We have to assume the government could be lurking on it - e.g. how do you know I'm not a party hack in the minister's office?  Giving notice of our 'soundbites' and tactics could allow them to be neutralised - and revealing our own confusion on some matters could give the government ammunition to 'divide and rule'.

I appreciate that there may not be any money (unless Margaret comes back from Brussels with a nice fat grant!), but maybe we should seek professional expertise - at least on a voluntary basis. I would recommend the Public Communications Centre - they work exclusively with 'not-for-profits' and, while that has included some promotional work for government departments and agencies, they are certainly not beholden to the government - e.g. they  work for other campaigning organisations such as Amnesty International. They may be prepared to do at least some initial work 'pro bono' - and/or help source potential funders.

Having decried 'drafting by mailing list', I am now going to contradict myself by putting in my  suggestions on the news release:

1) Try and keep it short - ideally no more than could be a printed out on a sheet of A4 - unless we have some major 'new news' to give.

2) Reporting what happened in the media is not news - journalists are not particularly interested in replicating what was said in another paper or on another station, unless it is news in its own right (e.g. P Flynn's famous denial on the Late Late). It's fine to paraphrase quotes like Marian Finucane's 'yoghurt branding' in interviews, but not in a news release.

3) Don't use quotes that could backfire - e.g. taking ownership of David Norris's description of the government as 'technophiliac' could help the government's attempts to tar us as Luddite. A core message that should be got across is that the opposition to the new system is being spearheaded by IT professionals (or rather 'computer experts' is what people will understand) , while the cabinet appears to have a poor grasp of technical issues. At the risk of sounding like David Norris, it's tempting to say that the minister's enthusiasm for e-government is reminiscent of a middle-aged father who thinks he's cool dancing at a teenage disco!

I would also be inclined not to use David Norris's discovery of flaws in the Oireachtas voting system (actually it was the Seanad system currently being introduced, not the similar Dail system introduced a year or so ago, that he managed to get three votes on). It's a completely different sort of system from the proposed e-voting system for the public (and, besides, can presumably be easily modified - or monitored - to ensure that each member only gets one vote).

4) Stick to the core arguments. Nora Owen exclusion from the press conference may be newsworthy but not of particular relevance to the ICTE's demand for VVAT and indeed could deflect the media and public's attention towards 'poor Nora - treated abruptly at the first e-count, now snubbed again'.

5) Be careful how you deal with technical issues like randomisation - we even seem to be confused amongst ourselves. Suffice to say that the counting system (as legislated for) does not, as it could easily do, remove one of the few weaknesses of the old paper system - arbitrary selection of which votes are distributed from surpluses.

6) Check the facts - e.g. 'other countries retrofitting e-voting systems with VVAT for as little as $50 per machine' looks very suspect, unless we believe that VVAT can be implemented by inkjet printers of the quality given away with home PCs.

7) As we need to stress our non-partisan credentials, either quote Catherine Ansbro as an ICTE member or (preferably, as it would be known) as a Green party official, but not both - apart from anything else, it is not clear in which capacity she is speaking.

8) Pre-empt the minister's responses and re-state the case - e.g. 'The minister's claim that there can be full printouts of votes displays his refusal to accept that the vote data could be corrupted by the balloting and/or counting software either accidentally or maliciously. The ICTE is asking for a paper record of each vote to be printed visibly to the voter at the 'cast vote' point and then stored securely so that, while preserving voter anonymity, each vote can be traced through the counting system. Any print-out that cannot be verified by the voter at the time of casting their vote would simply be a self-fulfilling exercise as all it would record would be the state of preferences AFTER they had been vulnerable to corruption or malfunction.' (actually this whole paragraph is too wordy and would need to be translated into plain English - not one of my strong points!).

9) As the ICTE is a new group, add a short background para at the end describing what the ICTE stands for, who's in it, that it's not party-political, etc and give contact details for spokespersons, URLs, etc.

OK, good luck.

Bruce Clark (ni at dna.ie) 

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