With Herman Cain, the (d)evolution of his campaign’s response to sexual harassment allegations has marked a total failure on basic crisis public relations principles. Here’s a rundown of all the mistakes made in just the past 36 hours:
• Attacking the media. When first confronted by Politico’s reporter (at least publicly — see the last bullet below) about the sexual harassment allegations, Cain snapped back, “have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?” Those in distress, take note — “I know you are but what am I” is not an effective crisis PR tactic.
• Singing. Any individual or organization facing a crisis PR fiasco has very limited time to respond to claims against them. That means all air-time should be used wisely, and the bigger the platform you’ve got, the more resourceful you need to be with it. With the National Press Club as his backdrop today, Cain should have used this stage to issue coherent statements and responses. Instead… he sang!
• Trying to be funny. Whether the sexual harassment allegations are true or not, the offense itself isn’t suitable material for political punchlines. Regular voters who might have supported Cain will certainly withdraw their support now. Instead of joking about his predicament, Cain might have talked about how sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue in America.
• Denying… then sort of denying… then acting confused. Anyone in the crisis PR hotseat must stay consistent with their communications and messages. Jumping all over the map is often the biggest blow to credibility.
Which brings us to the last point… and which also happens to be the biggest crisis management mistake by the Cain campaign…
• NOT PLANNING AHEAD! Sadly, this one’s a major failure for many sophisticated businesses and high-profile people. They don’t anticipate such crisis public relations scenarios, and lacking the prior planning, the response becomes completely erratic. Even worse: Politico gave Cain 10 days (TEN!!!) to respond to the sexual harassment allegations before it rans its story! If only every crisis PR client had that same luxury.
And a footnote: The Cain campaign’s much-maligned “smoking” ad has done nothing to help his cause. Some might argue about the “genius” of the ad, but having lost so much goodwill over that heated move, Cain has less support to turn to in this time of need.