November 22, 2011
What Herman Cain Can Teach Corporations in Crisis
By Jason Miner and Christina Reynolds, The Glover Park Group
In the past few months, GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain's campaign has offered viewers everything ranging from a lesson in clever marketing for policy positions to pithy one-liners to a return of the flat-tax advocacy of Steve Forbes. In the last weeks, he's also offered the first real scandal of the 2012 presidential race — and a series of valuable lessons for public relations professionals.
Political communications and corporate communications are not always interchangeable, but Cain's response to the allegations of sexual harassment from his past provide corporate communications team a great roadmap for how NOT to respond in a crisis. While we don't yet know the veracity of either the claims or Cain's responses, this situation provides an interesting case study for response in a crisis. In a week-long (and growing) series of stumbles that may derail his campaign, Cain has broken the most important rules in crisis communications, including:
- Know the facts first. As the scandal broke, Herman Cain's campaign manager initially denied the story altogether, a denial the campaign had to walk back in a later response. In the middle of a crisis, offering inaccurate answers makes your company look like they have something to hide. Once you've been proven wrong on one answer, it calls every other response into question. Your crisis plan should include every fact you can find and should be built with as much information as you can gather.
- Get your answer out quickly. During Cain's first face-to-face interaction with reporters after the story broke, he refused to answer repeated direct questions about the harassment claims. During a crisis, you need to get it right, but every minute without an answer is a minute you are failing to push your own message or refute the charges against you.
- Keep your answers consistent. In the days after the story broke, Cain told reporters that the organization's HR team and counsel had investigated the claims, although the staff later denied this. He's waffled and changed wording on a few different answers, and in doing so, he's only whetted reporters' appetites even more. Executives may complain that offering the same answer is repetitive and boring, but in a crisis, that's often the point. Shifting answers give your opponents and reporters new angles on the story. The same answer means the same story, which can help cut off the oxygen to your crisis.
- Stop talking if you have nothing helpful to add. After giving multiple responses--none of them particularly helpful--Cain had at least five TV appearances in about 24 hours, ensuring that his scandal was always the top of the news and giving hungry reporters more answers to parse. While it's often helpful to be aggressive in getting your message out, any business in crisis needs to ensure that they are offering spokespeople only when it adds value. If you cannot positively impact a story by appearing, then you should appear. Just stop talking. Period. Cain's primary opponent Mitt Romney has learned this lesson well. Rather than get in the middle of a food fight, Romney and his team have remained quiet and allowed Cain to talk himself into further problematic headlines.
- Don't let your emotions get the best of you: As Cain has snapped at the growing swarms of reporters in the days in increasingly angry tones following the story breaking, he has given the story the one thing it lacked—great video. When in a crisis, it's natural to show emotion—sadness, frustration, even outrage—but be measured about how it affects your decision making and how much you show on camera. A CEO snapping at a reporter can take the story away from your message and feed the fire of a company in trouble.
As any PR professional knows, there's no one right answer for dealing with a crisis. With new allegations every day, Herman Cain continues to prove that there are many wrong answers. The best we can do is watch and learn.
Jason Miner and Christina Reynolds are Managing Directors at the Glover Park Group. Miner runs the group's public affairs division and both work frequently in crisis communications. Between them, they spent 20-plus years in Democratic politics and helped run rapid response operations for presidential campaigns and campaign committees.