What? Me? Apologize? [Herman Cain doesn’t read our blog]
2011 began mildly enough but it’s gotten pretty strange. Nancy Grace is (actually, was) on Dancing With the Stars. And now Herman Cain.
First, we are given the campaign video with his campaign adviser taking a very long drag on a cigarette and then Herman’s long, slow smile. Followed up with sexual harassment allegations (on and on). We can’t imagine what will happen next, but we know one thing for sure–Herman Cain doesn’t read this blog.
Or at least, he doesn’t take it to heart when he does. We have been writing for years about the art of apology, including effective ways of deflecting criticism, what level of candor the public expects of public figures, and how to avoid digging yourself an ever deepening hole. [Are you listening, Herman?] This is a skill that all of us could use, but survival in the media fishbowl requires it. Mr. Cain doesn’t feel that he owes anyone an apology, a classic characteristic of narcissistic witnesses.
In our previous blogs on the apologies of Tiger Woods, David Letterman, and Eliot Spitzer, we pointed out why the public responded supportively and critically to these various efforts and strategies. The lessons from each of these celebrity apologies are different, and we don’t need to repeat ourselves since you can read the posts yourself. But the hallmark of an effective apology follows the same rules as effective argument for any trial lawyer.
The triers of fact (voters, fans, or jurors) want to believe that
- There’s nothing shameful about being just like you.
- You are willing to tell the truth
- You freely admit what everyone knows
- You don’t hide behind fine print or loopholes
- Your apology is not ‘convenient’ or strategic, but rather, it is genuine and sincere.
Herman Cain’s response to the public statements of Sharon Bialek and Karen Kraushaar was perhaps more embarrassing than Rick Perry’s ‘brain freeze’ in the recent Republican candidate debate. Rick Perry stumbled over naming three federal agencies he would eliminate–while Cain seemed to have three ill-considered strategies in his responses to charges of harassment:
The Saint Strategy: Deny that he did anything wrong. Ever. In his entire life. Or to quote him, “I have never acted inappropriately with anyone. Period.” The problem with this approach is that only die-hard hero-worshippers believe that anyone is that perfect. Reasonable people view it as defensive and inevitably exaggerated, even for a good person.
The Hair-Splitting Strategy: Excuse himself from early statements of his not recalling settlements by later saying that the money paid to these women in exchange for their not filing a suit wasn’t a settlement, it was a ‘personnel action’. We remember clearly Bill Clinton’s deposition, and his hedging on whether he had sex with Monica Lewinsky based on his unspoken understanding of what ‘having sex’ meant. It didn’t work then, and it won’t help now as Jon Stewart ably demonstrates.
The ‘Fog of Time’ Strategy: Hide behind his poor memory of events, as if he hasn’t been poring over the details that might have faded over time. Even if he didn’t remember off-hand, the public expects him to work tirelessly to find the facts, and will not accept “I don’t recall” as candid truth. This approach breaks down because there are records (organizational records, appointment books, notes of meetings, memos, et cetera) that Cain could access that would fill in many blanks. The problem is that the response makes it appear that he doesn’t want to know, while the public [largely] does. He considers this unworthy of discussion, in contrast to many voters.
Of course, we can’t know what happened between Herman Cain and these women, although the public is beginning to believe his accusers. What we do know is that the first rule of public relations is: ‘If you’re in a hole, stop digging’. The arrogance of some celebrities, public figures, and witnesses causes them to believe that they haven’t done anything wrong, even when many outside the bubble of his or her entourage see it differently.
Herman Cain would be a difficult witness (or candidate) to prepare for a public examination, in part because he doesn’t feel he should be forced to answer uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately for Mr. Cain, there is nothing the public–voters or jurors–wants more.