Herman Cain: In A Crisis, Silence Will Be Used Against You

Most media interviews aren’t live, so I usually advise spokespersons to stop and think for a few seconds before answering a question.

Those few seconds can help you form a dramatically better answer, avoid the dreaded “seven-second stray,” maintain better eye contact, and prevent distracting “uhhhs” and “umms.” I’ve written more about the importance of pausing here.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and an incident involving Republican frontrunner Herman Cain offers one such exception.

When Herman Cain was asked about sexual harassment, his silence communicated volumes. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Earlier this week, a news organization ran a story claiming that Mr. Cain sexually harassed two women while heading the National Restaurant Association. Here’s how Mr. Cain handled questions about those allegations, as reported by the website Politico:

“He was then asked, ‘Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?’ He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, ‘Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?’”

As I’ve noted previously, there are at least two times when pausing can make you look bad: In a crisis, and during a live interview.

Mr. Cain’s pause seemed to communicate that there is something to this story (if there was nothing to talk about, he would have denied the charges outright). Although he denied the charges in a later interview, his initial reaction comes across as damning.

In fairness to Mr. Cain, I don’t have any clue whether or not he’s guilty of the charges against him. But regardless of the facts of this case, it serves as a good example of how much silence can communicate – and how much damage an ill-timed pause can cause.

So what should Mr. Cain have done if he didn’t know the answer? Well, I know this is unforgiving – but he should have had the answer. Well-run campaigns do a vulnerabilities assessment well in advance of a crisis, just as well-run companies and organizations do. This one should have been easy to see coming. The fact that Mr. Cain’s campaign was caught so flat-footed suggests an amateurish campaign that is failing to do the basics.