Twitter: The Political Sex Scandal Response Tool of the 21st Century

Nov 1, 2011 5:59am

Forget newspaper headlines, pre-arranged press conferences and nightly news broadcasts, the political scandals of the 21st century are playing out in online articles, 140-character tweets and rapid-fire blog posts.

At least that is how the sexual harassment allegations against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, and his denials of them, have erupted into the national spotlight over the past 24 hours.

“The single biggest thing that the new technology does is enable you to respond instantaneously and for that response to be broadcast instantaneously to the whole word,” said longtime political consultant Phil Noble. “Beyond that the strategy is still the same. You react immediately. You react accurately. You react in a way that tries to not lead to more questions.”

While Cain’s response, like many other aspects of his campaign, has not been textbook, he has embraced the speed of social media in reacting to what could be a devastating story.

After Politico posted an article online Sunday evening alleging that Cain sexually harassed two women while serving as CEO of the National Restaurant Association, the Cain campaign countered the online story with an online response, in 140 characters or less.

Cain bought prime search result placement on Twitter for a promoted tweet that said “Sadly we’ve seen this movie played out before. Mr.Cain and all Americans deserve better.”

By Monday morning Cain had swapped social media for traditional media, making three back-to-back televised appearances in which he vehemently denied the charges.

“This is the best example of old media and new media combining to react to what has to be the first big, juicy scandal of the 2012 presidential campaign,” said Alison Dagnes, the editor of the book “Sex Scandals in American Politics.”

But while political scandals these days are playing out on websites that did not exist ten years ago, the way candidates manage them has not changed, said Dagnes, now an associate political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

“It is the same and it’s ridiculous that it’s still the same,” Dagnes said of the un-evolved scandal response strategy. “Twenty years ago there was one one-billionth the amount of media outlets there are now, so you’re going to get buried by this more than 20 years ago.”

Dagnes said the best way to survive the “avalanche” of media scrutiny that comes with an alleged sex scandal is to “nip it in the bud” with a consistent and true message. Cain’s campaign succeeded at the speed aspect she said, but stumbled in trying to put out a cohesive message.

“He began with a no-denial denial, then moved to a rejection of the facts, then an accusation that the liberal media is out to get him,” Dagnes said. “Using all the different media forms available is a good idea, but he has to come up with one message.”

Social media and the blogosphere are making it virtually impossible to respond to every source of criticism, said Arjen Boin,  an associate professor of public administration at Louisiana State University who studies crisis management. The Internet is creating a “democratization of the crisis process,” by expanding the number of people reporting and commenting on a possible scandal, he said.

“What it means is that it becomes much harder to manage,” Boin said. “I think everybody is re-inventing the wheel right now.”

Sex-related political scandals, on the other hand, are nothing new. But despite the public’s general disapproval of them, Noble said sex scandals do not spell disaster for politicians, as long as they’re honest about them.

“The number-one sin in American politics is, in my judgment, thou shalt not B.S. me. Just tell me the truth,” Noble said. “Allegations of sexual impropriety change the conversation, but they don’t necessarily change the game.”

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