After several grueling months of watching Herman Cain’s political campaign struggle through numerous PR nightmares, the mess is finally over. At least it can be used as a learning experience for current and future Public Relations practitioners. There are three important lessons we can take away from this giant failure in issues management and crisis communications:
1. Get ahead of the story. This does not mean denying things the day before the story breaks and the accusers come forward. Telling the media, your fans and your opposition that some women are going to make accusations and they’re definitely not true so don’t worry about it everyone does not make you seem like you’re being forthcoming and transparent. In fact, it made Herman Cain seem even guiltier, at least of a cover-up.
Cain would have been better off addressing the accusations long before they became an issue. His team had to have known that someone, whether it be another candidate, a member of the media, or a blog-poster with a grudge, would have eventually brought the accusations up. And yet, no one had even had any plan. It seems like everyone on Cain’s team just crossed their fingers and hoped no one would talk about it. No such luck.
2. “No Comment” is no good. Following the story breaking and the repeated sexual harassment allegations coming to light, Cain readily played the “No Comment” card. This is an ineffective tactic in public relations, especially crisis communication. It made Cain look guilty, and it made the media all the more interested in the story. And by refusing to comment, Cain effectively disallowed the media from hearing his side of the story.
Second of all, Cain cried “no comment” in a ridiculous way. He didn’t just tell the media that he’d rather not (or that he couldn’t, in some cases) discuss the numerous issues. Instead, he refused to talk about the issue because, apparently, he decided it wasn’t newsworthy. That’s not the way crisis communications works, and it’s certainly not the way politics work. Cain’s “no comment” wasn’t just ineffective, it was insulting to the media and pretty egotistical.
3. Your audience is not stupid. Even if your audience is stupid, it’s a terrible idea to behave as though it is. Cain and his team used several tactics to try to sweep the accusations under the rug. First, he passed blame. Rather than take responsibility for his actions, explain his wrongdoings, apologize and make amends, Cain blamed everyone else: the Democrats, his Republican opponents, the media, and his accusers. No one believed he was the victim, and Cain ended up looking like he didn’t know how to take responsibility for his actions or handle a crisis. These are not qualities that make a good president.
Cain’s second ineffective tactic was pulling his wife into the frenzy. So many politicians have used the “devoted wife” routine that it has become an obvious ploy for sympathy and support.Cain’s third and most amusing tactic is the poor attempt at damage control that is “Women for Cain,” a hastily thrown together web page detailing how Herman Cain has always been an advocate for women’s rights! He cares about women! Look at this picture of him hugging his wife! Read these testimonials from real women who think Herman Cain is swell! It comes off as disingenuous. It’s too little, too late, and it was insulting of Cain and his team to think the webpage would really convince women that Cain is a great guy, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
The majority of PR practitioners already know exactly where Cain’s campaign went wrong and why it was such a public relations nightmare. Many people who watched the situation unfold knew the mistakes that Cain and his campaign team made and predicted the aftermath. Still, it’s always nice to be reminded how smart you are. For me, it’s a great reminder of why I don’t plan on doing political PR any time in the future.
Hofstra PR Student