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.”
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.