Dropping the ball

By Jerry Brown, APR

Herman CainI don’t know whether the accusations by the women accusing Herman Cain of sexual harassment are true. But I do know he dropped the ball last week with his response. Or, more accurately, responses.

Cain made at least four mistakes in responding to the accusations. He’s not alone. His mistakes are so unbelievably common by politicians and executives who find themselves in crisis situations that they’re worth noting:

Mistake #1: He wasn’t prepared. According to press reports, Cain and his staff knew 10 days before the story broke that Politico was looking into the accusations. Nevertheless, he appeared to be caught off guard and unprepared when the story finally appeared. With 10 days to get ready, there’s no excuse for that. In fact, Cain and his staff should have had a response to these accusations in their crisis preparedness files well before they heard from Politico or anyone else. Crisis preparedness means being ready to deal with stories you don’t want to see. Being unprepared for dealing with bad news is an all-too-common mistake. And, as often happens, it led to Cain’s next mistake.

Mistake #2: He stonewalled. Cain’s first reaction was to deny the story and challenge its accuracy. Then, day after day, he moved the boundary of what he said — but always limiting the information he provided to the minimum he thought necessary. Another common mistake. And it almost always leads to Cain’s next mistake.

Mistake #3: His story kept changing. The problem with telling only part of the story is that it often means changing your story as more information becomes available. This is exactly what happened to Cain. First, he denied the story was true. Then he acknowledged there were allegations but said they were false and said nothing about any settlement payments. After the payments hit the news, Cain said he didn’t know about them. Then he acknowledged knowing about them but understated the amount paid. You get the idea. Another common mistake that almost inevitably leads to Cain’s next mistake.

Mistake #4: He kept the story alive. Questionable denials and/or leaving questions unanswered is an invitation to reporters to keep digging. Actually, it’s a challenge to reporters to keep digging. Cain, like many before him and many more to come, fell into this trap. He also kept the story alive by accusing fellow candidate Rick Perry of being behind the Politico story, which Perry denies. The problem for Cain? It doesn’t matter whether Perry’s campaign was behind the story. The issue is whether Cain is guilty or innocent. Dragging Perry’s campaign into it just gave the media a hook for keeping the story alive for another news cycle. Actually, three news cycles in this case: The accusation against Perry, Perry’s denial and Cain backing off of his accusation, followed by a second accusation by Cain that Perry was responsible for the story. When dealing with bad news, your job is to shut the story down not keep it alive.

What should Cain have done? One possibility would have been preempting Politico by disclosing the full story from his point of view before Politico ran its story. If Cain chose not to do that, then he should have told the whole story, including his claim of innocence, as soon as the story broke. Still a bad story, but his best shot at getting it off the air and off the front pages as soon as possible.

That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?

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