3. Keep your candidate above the fray. Diverting attention in the wake of a damaging story by shifting blame isn’t always a bad thing, but strategists say it should never come directly from the mouth of the candidate or the campaign manager. In the case of Cain, accusations directed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign and consultants came fast and furious from both.
“You have surrogates blame others, you never let the candidate do that,” says Stutts. “Your main objective is protecting the candidate and that means keeping him above the fray. This is why you have surrogates.”
When the candidate is the one front and center pointing a finger, the damage to your campaign can easily be amplified if the claims aren’t fully backed up.
4. Exude competence. No candidate makes it through a presidential campaign without some scars, especially when they’re locked in a wide open and competitive primary. But if you’re viewed as an untested quantity—like Cain—you’ll have more to prove when a crisis hits.
In this situation, even your supporters, donors and potential donors are watching closely—don’t give them any reason to waver or doubt your campaign's ability to compete. It’s achievable with a measured and well-thought out response, says Sheinkopf, and by showing the ability to recover quickly from your missteps.
“They clearly don’t understand that basic rule of crisis management,” he says of the Cain camp. “This was just a badly staged response right from the beginning. First, you’ve got to change the topic with your response and then you’ve got to find third party verifiers to get out there and defend Cain. He did none of that, so you have to question whether [the campaign is] capable.”
5. Don't jump in the quicksand. If you’re going to start pointing fingers and playing the victim in an attempt to change the conversation, make sure you have something concrete to back up your counterclaims. Otherwise, you'll be sinking fast. When the Cain campaign accused Anderson and the Perry camp of leaking the harassment story, the natural question is “Do you have any proof? Do you even have any evidence?” says Stutts.
Cain’s charge resulted in a vigorous denial from Perry’s campaign and a Thursday morning cable news appearance from Anderson, who contradicted Cain’s account of that conversation he claims to have had with the consultant during his 2004 Senate race.
“You have a situation here where Mr. Cain is saying people are falsely accusing him,” Anderson said in an interview on CNN, “and so the last thing that he ought to do is falsely accuse somebody else.”
Ultimately, accusing a rival campaign of leaking a damaging story about you is always risky business. If you can’t conclusively back it up, says Stutts, it’s bound to distract from the substance of your response.
After a round of finger-pointing by Cain and his staff and denials by Perry and his, the Cain campaign backed off its accusations just a day after calling Perry’s campaign “despicable” and demanding an apology.
“They seem to believe that truth will conquer all and that people will just accept they’re telling the truth,” says Sheinkopf. “It doesn’t work that way in campaigns, and they’re learning that the hard way.”
A spokesman for Cain didn’t return a request seeking comment for this story.
Sean J. Miller contributed to this story.