When Politico published an investigation on Sunday into sexual harassment allegations made against Herman Cain in the late 1990s, Cain struggled to respond effectively. In the five days since, instead of dying down as he hoped and perhaps expected, the story has escalated and taken on a life of its own.
Public relations professionals say it didn't have to go that way.
If he would have had one story that held up to scrutiny and stuck to it, it would have been a one-day, maybe a one-and-a-half-day story, Randall Whatley, president of the Atlanta-based Cypress Media Group, said. The whole story would have gotten out, and the press would have moved on to another story.
Instead, Cain has changed or added to his story multiple times; denied the allegations with technicalities and cast himself as the victim; and deflected blame and tried to redirect attention from the allegations themselves to who might have leaked them.
Cain has gotten a lot of flak for that strategy, even from some conservatives who believe the allegations against him are unfair. And every public relations expert who spoke to the International Business Times agreed that if Cain's campaign does sink, it will be because of his response, not because of the allegations themselves.
A Roller Coaster of Responses
Each day, the story Cain tells has gotten a little more convoluted. It has gone something like this:
SUNDAY: Politico reports that, during Cain's tenure as CEO of the National Restaurant Association from 1996 to 1999, two women accused him of sexual harassment and received five-figure settlements to leave the organization and not talk about the incidents.
MONDAY: In a mid-morning interview, Cain says he has never sexually harassed anyone but had been falsely accused. He denies any settlement. But just a few hours later, he tells Fox News' Greta van Susteren that there was, in fact, a settlement, possibly for two or three months' salary. He recalls one incident in which he gestured to his chin and told a female employee that she was the same height as his wife, but insists there were no other incidents.
TUESDAY: Cain tries to use a semantics argument to reconcile his initial statement that there was no settlement with his subsequent statement that there was one. Legally, he says, it was an agreement, not a settlement. He also qualifies his statement that the hand gesture was the only incident, telling CNN reporter Robin Meade that there were a couple of other things in there that I found absolutely ridiculous, but that he doesn't remember what they were.
WEDNESDAY: A third woman tells The Associated Press that Cain made sexually suggestive remarks and once invited her back to his apartment, but that she decided against filing a complaint. A Republican political consultant also tells CNN that he personally witnessed Cain harassing one of the two women who received settlements. It occurred at a restaurant in Crystal City [Virginia], and everybody was aware of it, the consultant, Chris Wilson, says. Cain's spokesman says these are just more baseless allegations made against him as this appalling smear campaign continues. Meanwhile, Cain tries to shift the focus to his opponents, accusing an adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry of leaking the story to Politico -- a charge Perry's spokesman and the adviser, Curt Anderson, both deny.
THURSDAY: Politico reports that one of the women received a $45,000 severance package, significantly more than the two or three months that Cain recalled. This follows a New York Times report that the second woman received $35,000, or a full year's salary. Cain does not respond to these new numbers, but he continues to accuse the media of orchestrating a smear campaign against him.
FRIDAY: The New York Times prints further details on the woman who received $35,000, reporting that she filed her harassment complaint after going out drinking with Cain and some young colleagues and rebuffed Cain's invitations to go home with him.
It's really just been a train wreck, Whatley said. Every time he does an interview, it's either a different version of the story or he remembers something he didn't remember three days ago, and then there's a second person that comes forward and a third.
A Growing Credibility Problem
The problem, PR experts say, is that Cain's denials have been inconsistent with the facts he has acknowledged, leaving people wondering what he is holding back and why.
The accusations may indeed be false, but if agreements were signed, something happened, even if it wasn't harassment, Ronn Torossian, the CEO of 5W Public Relations, said. He seems to think that because he tells somebody not to talk about it, it'll go away. It's not going to go away. There's talk now that they're discussing a lawsuit against Politico -- well, did Politico not say the truth? And if they didn't say the truth, then why haven't we heard it?
Almost every acknowledgement Cain has made has been tempered with some sort of claim of victimhood, whether a jab at the liberal media or an assertion that he is being targeted because of his race or because of an opponent's political vendetta. He has called the scrutiny a witch hunt and a high-tech lynching, and he has maintained that the allegations are only coming out now because he is doing so well in the polls.
I frequently have clients who run into this problem. They get hung up on semantics, and to the public, it looks like they're dodging, like their answers morph as they go, Brian Kirwin, a political consultant for Rourk Public Relations, said. You have to have the same message on Monday as you have on Tuesday as you have on Wednesday. The second you start looking angry, like you're under attack, like you're misunderstood, it looks like you're deflecting blame, and that never looks good.
Since the story broke, we have heard everything from liberal media bias to racism to 'my opposition did it,' Torossian said. But until Cain says what happened, when it happened, where it happened, why it happened and with whom it happened, this story is not going away.
Every public relations professional with whom the International Business Times spoke said that Cain should have told the whole story as soon as Politico published the allegations, and that the only way to salvage the situation now is to stop deflecting blame and do just that. Anything else, they said, will just reinforce the impression that he has something to hide.
When you nitpick the allegations and the story, you bring yourself down to the level of the accusers, and you're playing on a field that you don't control, Kirwin said. The more you wallow in the details -- it wasn't a settlement, it was an agreement -- the more you look like you're trying to dodge responsibility. These may not be correct impressions, but they are impressions.
Cain shouldn't try to displace blame because there's no blame to be displaced, even if he didn't mean to sexually harass anybody, Whatley said. If they settled two claims, then that's not anyone's fault for talking about the fact that they were settled. What did you think? You're running for president. If this were about any other candidate, everyone would react the same way.
A Lack of Preparedness
From a public relations perspective, ignoring potential scandals until they arise is an elementary mistake, professionals said.
Historically, public relations consultants have been called after a crisis strikes and asked to 'spin' the story to fix the problem, Mark McDonald, the director of client relations for Vox Optima Public Relations, wrote in an article titled Crisis Communications: Are You Prepared?
But, he said, This approach seldom works. Preparing for crisis communication should be part of every business's strategic communication plan and should be practiced long before a crisis hits.
Cain's campaign, by its own admission, did not do that.
Politico says it first contacted the campaign 10 days before publishing its investigation, which should have given Cain plenty of time not only to comment to the reporter, but also to come up with a game plan for responding to the allegations once they went public. But when conservative radio host Laura Ingraham asked Cain on Tuesday why he was still unprepared when the story came out, he said he had made a conscious decision to ignore the impending Politico story until it was published.
He did not explain why he chose to do that, and public relations professionals said they were bewildered by the approach.
I don't understand why -- he knew this thing was coming for 10 days, so why did they have no response ready? Torossian said. He has allowed a sexual harassment lawsuit from years ago to become a major national story.
Not only did Cain have advance warning of the Politico story, but he also seems to have realized that the allegations, however old or baseless they might have been, could be politically destructive if revealed, as evidenced by the fact that he told former adviser Curt Anderson about them in preparing for his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2004.
We discussed opposition research on me. It was a typical campaign conversation, Cain told Forbes magazine on Wednesday. I told him there was only one case, one set of charges, one woman while I was at the National Restaurant Association. Those charges were baseless, but I thought he needed to know about them.
That raises the question of why, if Cain thought that the allegations were important enough in 2004 for his campaign adviser to need to know about them, he did not think they were important enough in 2012, on a vastly larger stage, to finesse them in advance.
Had he done so, and thus had a coherent message ready to give the reporters that swarmed him after Politico published its investigation, the story would probably have blown over in a day or two, Kirwin said.
He certainly should have prepared for it, and he should have been so certain in how to defend against the claim that it would almost look rehearsed, Kirwin said. No matter how many times or how many reporters, they still get the same answer, to the point that it almost looks silly that they continue to ask the same question.
Instead, he said, Cain looked woefully unprepared.
Just before the Politico investigation was published, reporter Jonathan Martin confronted Cain on the street and asked him for comment. Cain's reaction -- turning the question on Martin and asking him whether he had ever been accused of sexual harassment -- was the definition of a deer in headlights, Torossian said.
And yet, despite being given every opportunity to prepare and acknowledging that he consciously decided not to do so, Cain has tried to defend his inconsistent responses by implying that it wasn't fair for reporters to expect him to come up with a polished comment on the spur of the moment.
For instance, regarding his acknowledgement that there had been a settlement after he had initially denied any knowledge of it, he told Ingraham, When I was initially hit with this and trying to stay focused on my day, I didn't recall that.
Whatley speculated that Cain tried to avoid addressing the allegations because he knew what the real story was and thought clearing the air would just raise more questions, so they just hoped to dodge the whole thing.
But he and his colleagues in the public relations industry say this case is a prime example of the mantra that it is not the crime but the cover-up that hurts the most.
These charges, in and of themselves, aren't enough to do in a candidate nowadays, Kirwin said. The issue of harassment is almost superseded by the issue of his personal honesty. If a first-person, detailed account comes out, even if it's a he-said-she-said -- if that puts a big question mark on Herman Cain's honesty, he's finished. Republicans have very little tolerance for that, especially in primaries.
Cain has refined his narrative since his initial, fumbling comments, but the end result of the scandal may not be clear for a few weeks yet.
He seems to have gotten better, but once the milk is spilled, it's tough to unspill it, Kirwin said. It's too late to do damage control. This will leave a scar.
The question is how bad that scar will be. It depends on whether additional details come out, and Cain doesn't have much control over that at this point.
The good news for Cain is that his base seems very willing to move past the allegations -- if they don't continue to escalate. In fact, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted between Monday and Thursday showed that Cain actually has more support now than he did a month ago, and he remains statistically tied with Mitt Romney in first place.
You would think the numbers would start dropping, but so far the polls are showing that within the Republican base, it's not really hurting him, Whatley said. I think people are certainly willing to overlook this within the Republican base.
Given the loyalty his supporters have demonstrated thus far, if the drip-drip-drip stops where it is now, he can recover from this, Kirwin said. He'll never get back to where he was, but it won't be lethal.
The possible outcomes range from complete political demise to securing the Republican nomination.
If it's that one person took it one way and you can understand how someone took something the wrong way, but he certainly didn't mean any harm, that's survivable, Kirwin said. But if it's something where the common person would think, 'If my boss said that to me, I'd be reporting it,' and he's been saying all along that there's nothing to it, he's very close to toast.
In other words, if the scandal dies down soon, it could end up being just a blip in Cain's political biography. But if new details emerge that put the lie to his denials, the fallout may accumulate to the point that even Cain's supporters start looking for a new candidate -- not necessarily because they themselves are upset with Cain, but because they come to see the allegations as too great an electoral liability.
I think there's still a very short window in which he could recover, Torossian said, but D-Day is now.