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Herman Cain image

photo credit: Toby Harnden|Daily Telegraph

The quadrennial silly season known as the US Presidential race has been in full cry on the Republican side for about six months now, with some highly entertaining spectacle already on display. Unfortunately, a popular favorite, Herman Cain, who had built up quite a head of steam as a leading contender, has been somewhat sidelined by accusations that have put his campaign in PR-crisis-management mode.

First, let me make it clear that I have no dog in this fight. I’m still waiting for the Logic Party to form, and meanwhile am a member of the No Labels movement – in other words, I’m apolitical outside the voting booth. Inside the voting booth, I hold my nose and do the best I can under the circumstances.

My purpose here is to point out the three simple, yet critical, steps Cain and his campaign communications team should have taken to, if not 100% avoid this epic mud-fest, at least keep it at small-mud-puddle level.

  1. Vet the candidate fully. Pretend you’re on the oppo research team of another candidate and vet the bejabbers out of your guy. Or gal. Go after anything that could possibly lurk as a Nannygate, or sexual harassment, or financial/business ethics challenge. The Cain team is steeping in a big bucket of #epicfail right now, because according to London Daily Telegraph US editor Toby Harnden, oppo research leakage was what led to the Politico piece that started this mud-fest.
  2. When you know the worst, plan the response. When you’ve got all the skeletons out of the closet and into the living room, start figuring out how to make them look less threatening. In this instance, simply putting the story out themselves would have taken much of the power of it off the table. “Allegations were made, this was the result, the candidate denies that there is any truth to them, but the decision was made at the time to settle the suit/issue/whatever” and move on. Never, ever let a big story about you get out there, unless you’re the one putting it out there. If one does, particularly at this stage of the game, you’re in crisis-response mode at the cost of core-message mode. Cain will now have to talk about this every day, or look like he’s dodging talking about this … every day. Not a path that’s likely to wind up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
  3. When caught out, make a full statement and then move on. Cain is caught in a cycle of no-comment/denial/bimbo-eruption/feeding-frenzy. This is a really bad place to be, because at this point pretty much anything he says will be discounted as reluctant disclosure. If his campaign had rigorously acted on Tip #1, Tip #2 would have been pretty easy, and Tip #3 might have been completely unnecessary. He’s now going to be chewed on daily until the bimbo eruptions subside. He can keep up the no-comment/denial protocol, but that will keep him in the feeding-frenzy box for the foreseeable future.

I feel for the guy. I covered every Presidential race from 1980 to 2004. As I put it in my bio: I covered wars, Presidential campaigns, and Presidential campaigns that turned into wars. Politics is a rough, nasty, no-holds-barred business – the higher the office, the sharper the knives and the bigger the guns you’ll be up against.

Failing to recognize that, and failing to get in front of any negative information in your past by revealing it yourself first, guarantees painful war wounds.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …

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