What Cain Can Teach Us About Crisis Communication

see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil
When a crisis hits in your campaign, be it political or marketing, it’s not the time to play hard to get or “turn the tables” on the reporter.  In this day and age, where everything and anything can be found and shared across a myriad of channels, do you really want to be ‘that guy’?

No. You do not. I’ll bet Herman Cain really doesn’t want to be that guy right about now.  His attempts to ‘handle’ his latest situation re: allegations of sexual harassment are at a minimum, disingenuous and at a maximum, disappointing from a PR perspective.

Really, Mr. Cain. Did your team not ‘vet’ you to this degree? Did they not know this little issue might come up? Whether it was real or not, whether you did it or not, here are a few tidbits I would offer to anyone who wants to be in the public eye and needs to know how to handle a brand crisis.

  1. First and foremost, sit down with your PR team or communications command center and go over anything and everything that could possibly rear its ugly head in a public way – BEFORE you start your public relations campaign.  Education and knowledge are beautiful, especially when shared with your team in advance.
  2. Have a crisis plan in place for the day that it might happen. Think it’s a waste of time? Think again. Even if you never use it, it’s time well spent preparing you for the worst of times and making you shine in the best.
  3. If you are presented with ghosts from the past or something new on the radar that you’re not aware of, rather than deny, play dumb, ask for the accusers’ names, or get antagonistic with the reporters, try something new and refreshing.  Try sounding sympathetic and helpful, with a healthy dose of directness.  Let them know when and where you’ll be addressing this issue and then set about addressing it.
  4. Don’t let the crisis hijack your existing message or public relations campaign. Address the issue separately if possible then continue to stay on topic. This will go a long way in keeping you looking like you’re in charge, but also in showing that you listen and that you know you need to address the issue.
  5. Take control of the issue and how you handle it. Avoid sounding reactionary or defensive.  It doesn’t look good.  Use your own communication channels to share your story.  Depending on the legalities of your particular issue, make sure you know what you can legally share and then make it easy to understand.  Admit what you can admit and then suggest we all move on – particularly if you and the parties have done so.
  6. Play to your strengths and to your audience.  Part of Cain’s original charm in the polls was his no nonsense approach to politics and campaigning, pledging to not dodge questions or give “non-answers” we’re all so weary of in these campaigns.  If you find yourself in a public brand crisis such as this, address it based on your strengths and the facts and how your audience wants to receive it. Too much hemming and hawing and the usual deny, deny, deny and you’ll damage trust and credibility.  Too sappy in your apology (think Mark Sanford here in his gushy heartfelt mea culpa) and you border on being disrespectful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely surprised anymore when someone in the public eye has an issue or a crisis. What I am surprised by is the utter lack of planning that goes into how it should be handled.

Know that if it can be said, it will be said. If it happened in the past and it’s in the least bit negative, it will be shared.  Accept that and plan accordingly.

What do you think? How do you avert a brand crisis in our digital age? What do you do to maintain your integrity but satisfy your audience’s need to know what happened?

Image via Flickr.

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  1. […] the same token, Cain’s recent handling of his campaign’s first unofficial crisis has been, in the eyes of most PR professionals, […]


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