Need a lesson on how not to react when your campaign hits a crisis? Look no further than the response of GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s camp to the sexual harassment allegations that have imperiled his bid for the Republican nomination.
Ask just about any strategist who isn’t working for the Cain campaign and you’ll hear the same thing: Cain’s response to the crisis was badly bungled from the start. Moreover, the inconsistency of his statements coupled with the very public blame game his staff engaged in may well mean the end of the road for his presidential bid.
Here are some basic crisis management lessons that emerged from the Cain scandal:
1. The Boy Scout rule: Always be prepared. According to Politico, Cain had 10 days to offer a response to a story that clearly held the potential to be devastating for his campaign. And he should have been aware well before that the allegations could emerge as a campaign issue. Cain told Forbes that the harassment claims from his time at the National Restaurant Association, which date back to the 1990s, were made known to GOP strategist Curt Anderson during his 2004 run for Senate in Georgia. Anderson has denied he knew anything about them, but either way it means Cain should have been more than prepared to respond forcefully and coherently to the allegations in 2011. From the moment he neared frontrunner status the campaign should have had a response plan in place.
“Your silence becomes the story if you don’t respond right way,” says Republican pollster Kristen Soltis. “There’s an expectation that if you’re running a presidential campaign, you’ll have something ready to go. You can’t wait for an opportune time in the news cycle.”
Instead of preparing a response to the Politico story, says GOP consultant Ed Rollins, “[the] Cain campaign was flacking the campaign manager’s idiotic smoking commercial all last week.”
When President Clinton was in the White House and staring down the mother of all sex scandals, at least his team had some time to plan before reacting, notes Republican strategist Phillip Stutts. “Now, you’ve got 15 minutes.
“With technology the way it is, and given how fast news moves, you have to be on top of it right from the start, because if you fumble, it’s really hard to recover,” he says.
The harassment story broke Sunday night and the campaign’s first response was a non-denial statement emailed to reporters. Cain then used a Fox News interview Monday morning to refute the story, but by then the horse was out of the barn.
2. Keep the story straight. This one seems so simple it almost goes without saying. But with the stakes so high, no one should be speaking on behalf of the campaign until everyone is on the same page when it comes to response—which shouldn’t take too long, assuming you’ve followed rule number one.
On Monday—the first full day of the story—Cain was talking to the press, but he wasn’t always offering the same response to some pretty predictable questions.
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who advised former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey during the sex scandal that led to his resignation, says mistakes like these could have been prevented with more preparation and a more measured response. But, he notes, “you have to be more nimble than this, and the Cain people just are not.”
“First rule is to find out the full story,” adds Rollins. “Decide what part makes you vulnerable and respond publicly to the charges that are hurting you. Then apologize to the woman you offended.”