Herman Cain, Rob Ford and Kanye West: Negative Momentum in PR

Political Communication, PR Add comments

Herman Cain and Rob Ford have both experienced weeks of PR misery in recent months. During these times, each new story seemed to pile upon the others. They experienced the negative momentum that so often happens in media coverage. Kanye West has had his share of negative momentum but was able to put an end to his. In the process, he offered two important lessons for PR practitioners.

What Cain and Ford experienced was the power of momentum in public relations. Each day or week, it seems, a new story arrives which runs in much the same direction as the previous stories. With Cain, of course, it was one allegation of sexual impropriety after another, followed by an allegation of a 13-year affair with another woman, all while he was married. Every few days, the story got worse for Cain, who announced the end of his candidacy as I put the finishing touches on this post.

For Ford, the momentum followed a series of embarrassments and skirmishes with high-profile individuals. Photos of Ford using a cellphone in his car were followed by more such photos. A battle with celebrated author Margaret Attwood over the fate of public libraries was followed by a bizarre incident which pitted Ford against comedienne Mary Walsh as she stood outside his home to “ambush” Ford wearing the garb of her famous Marg: Princess Warrior character. Most recently, Ford’s declared battle against Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, began making headlines again. Every week, it seemed, there is more damage to the Mayor’s image and reputation. A pattern had been set and seemed to be repeating itself.

There are two good reasons why momentum is so common in media coverage. First, news outlets are eager to follow up on popular stories, confident that an eager audience is ready to receive the latest update. When famous people or brands are involved, it’s the newsroom equivalent of a sequel to a comic book hero movie. Money in the bank.

There is also the confirmation bias that psychologists like Peter Wason and reporters like Dan Gardner have reported on for decades. We are drawn to information that confirms what we believe. So when a story breaks that establishes a certain narrative or establishes a certain image for an individual or a company, we are drawn to further news stories that confirm the narrative or image. With each new story, the momentum builds and can become almost impossible to overcome. The corollary, of course, is that we are more likely to ignore, dismiss or forget evidence that contradicts the narrative or image.

So what is a Herman Cain or Rob Ford to do?

The answer: take a page from the Kanye West play book. Fresh from his disastrous outburst on the MTV Video Awards and other legal and image woes, West headed to the relative isolation of Honolulu and focused his attention on writing and recording what would become My Beautifu Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album was released one year later to solid reviews and strong sales. The negative momentum was broken and a positive momentum of excitement over the music was in its place.

There are two important lessons here for public relations practitioners. First, in the face of negative momentum, time away from the microphones and cameras is important. In light of his high-profile battle with Margaret Atwood, for example, Mayor Rob Ford could certainly have handled the attempted ambush by Marg Princess Warrior in a way that would attract less media attention. Calling the police was just about the worst thing to do. Similarly, publicly declaring war on the city’s most important newspaper is destined only to continue and accelerate the negative momentum. Cain, for his part, ceded control of what stories would emerge when many years ago and continues to suffer negative momentum as a result. Leaving the race for the Republican nomination may well be the only way for him to stop the negative momentum, though his plan to remain in the public spotlight (if it succeeds) may well keep the ball rolling.

The second lesson that Kanye West offers is to break the negative momentum by re-focusing on the basics – on the things that brought you success in the first place. The album he released after a year in exile was, in my humble opinion and that of many others, brilliant. The focus was back on Kanye the artist and Kanye’s music. Bring on the positive momentum.

Cain simply hasn’t been able to do that for reasons I mentioned, though the steadfast and visible support of his wife is certainly a small step in the right direction. Ford’s months of misery seemed prepared to end with the passing of a city budget that features numerous cuts to service and the eviction of Occupy Toronto protesters from a public park. Though both these actions drew much criticism, Ford was back to basics by delivering on the budget cuts he promised and by demonstrating the toughness that had been a hallmark of his political image. Whether one agrees with his actions or not, Ford was back to doing that which brought him success in the first place. Then he decided to pick another battle with the Toronto Star during a radio interview. He would have done well to study and learn the lessons of Kanye West.


One response to “Herman Cain, Rob Ford and Kanye West: Negative Momentum in PR”

  1. […] Mary Walsh and the Toronto Star, and for his penchant for using a cell phone while driving. See my earlier post for more discussion on Ford’s woes. That his PR troubles continue at the very end of the year […]

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