Until recently, Herman Cain had shown himself to be a pretty savvy communicator. The plainspoken ex-pizza prez showed he understands the value of a simple idea, well packaged and often repeated, with his “9-9-9” tax proposal. (No one understood it, he couldn’t really explain it, but everyone knew about it. Can you say that about any other candidate’s tax plan?)
Even Cain’s campaign ad – which looked like a 1970s commercial for the tobacco industry – racked up over a million views on YouTube, and another million on the Cain website, in part because it was so unorthodox. Quirky? Yes. Off-putting? Maybe. But the spot was pretty smokin’ on the Web; it blew away the competition and dominated the news cycle for a couple of days without costing a dime.
But Cain’s latest PR crisis is more serious, and this time, snappy sound bites won’t be enough. A report of sexual harassment allegations against Cain when he served as head of the National Restaurant Association during the 90s left the candidate and his campaign looking flat-footed, defensive, and decidedly indecisive. These things can’t always be managed by the handbook, but there were some glaring rules that were broken or ignored.
Vetting and preparation. Politico sat on the harassment story for a good ten days while waiting for the Cain campaign to respond. That’s an eternity in crisis response time, and it makes Cain’s charges of media bias look lame. Any candidate for public office knows that they must be aware of all potential skeletons and have a plan to deal with their inevitable disclosure. Better yet, have a plan to disclose them yourself. (Remember Obama’s casual mention of his occasional cocaine use as a student in his biography? Masterful.)
Candor. Cain’s flip-flops when confronted with the harassment allegations were inexcusable given the timeframe, and weak even under the best of circumstances. When asked about the story, he denied the accusation, and also denied that any settlement had been made – a nonsense answer given the easy verifiability of the settlement in question. Cain might have had a false sense of confidence because the complainant signed a confidentiality agreement with the NRA, but he and his people had to know it would come out. And chalking up his response to semantics (“agreement” versus “settlement”) made him look like he was hiding something.
Consistency. Cain’s first response was a weaselly sounding denial, followed by hostility. Then, he backpedaled, pleading faulty memory. Following that, he became conciliatory and even jocular before again attacking the press for bias. He’s tried so many responses and behaviors that he’s got Condoleezza Rice warning him not to play “the race card.” In crisis PR, consistency, coupled with message control and transparency, is usually the best course.
Counterattack. It’s common for candidates to chalk up stories like this one to political opposition research, and it’s usually true. Of course the harassment story was leaked by an opponent. But good PR practice (and common sense) dictates you need to respond truthfully to the accusation first, then hit back. The way Cain responded made him look defensive and deceptive.
Activation of allies. Four days after the story’s publication, some close Cain friends and advocates have been quoted about his character, maintaining that the Herman they know would never engage in inappropriate behavior. This has been too little, and maybe even too late. And his most important ally, his wife of 43 years, had yet to be heard from. Her chance will come Friday when she’s interviewed on Fox News by Greta Van Sustern. Stay tuned.