Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cain Campaign's Lawyerly Statement Misses the Mark

This is not a political statement about whether or not presidential candidate Herman Cain should or should not be president.  At the same time, it is not an analysis of whether Mr. Cain is responsible for anything of which he has been accused in the press of late.  I will leave that to the political pundits and Entertainment Tonight.

It is, however, an effort to explore what I think was a serious PR mistake by the Cain campaign.  In this case, the issue is a woman named Ginger White, who stepped forward in the media this week, claiming to an Atlanta TV station that she had a 13-year affair with Mr. Cain.  Such a bombshell announcement would rock any campaign, but this one is particularly tough on the Cain campaign because of a series of prior allegations of sexual harassment.

Enter Mr. Cain’s lawyer, Lin Wood, who provided this statement to the press on the alleged affair:

“Mr. Cain has been informed today that your television station plans to broadcast a story this evening in which a female will make an accusation that she engaged in a 13-year long physical relationship with Mr. Cain. This is not an accusation of harassment in the workplace – this is not an accusation of an assault - which are subject matters of legitimate inquiry to a political candidate.

Rather, this appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults - a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public. No individual, whether a private citizen, a candidate for public office or a public official, should be questioned about his or her private sexual life. The public's right to know and the media's right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one's bedroom door.

Mr. Cain has alerted his wife to this new accusation and discussed it with her. He has no obligation to discuss these types of accusations publicly with the media and he will not do so even if his principled position is viewed unfavorably by members of the media.”

There are two things about this statement that virtually convict Mr. Cain in the court of public opinion.  First, nowhere is there an explicit denial that the affair took place.  Because of that, it leaves the reader to assume there must have been an affair.  Secondly, one thing the statement makes clear is that the campaign has a narrow view of what the media should cover. 

The spirit of the last line in the second paragraph, The public's right to know and the media's right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one's bedroom door,” seems ignorant of the nature of a free press in a democratic society.  Yes, the candidate has a right to believe in boundaries and that those boundaries should respect the privacy of the individual.  But those boundaries are for the individual, not the press.  We are not talking about a private citizen or a minor in this case.  This is about media coverage of a man who wants to be President of the United States.

Mr. Cain can choose whether or not to comment on certain issues, but his campaign has no ground to stand on when trying to tell the media what it can cover.  Mr. Cain’s lawyer did nothing positive to support the presidential candidate, and through this statement alone, did more harm than good.  This is one of those cases where the lawyerly impulse to respond with a “no comment” would have been a better approach.  And from a PR standpoint that still would not be good enough.

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