a caricature of Herman CainGuest post by Daniel J. Cohen

Politics was my first love, but she broke my heart.

As a student of American University from 2002 to 2006, I found politics a bit too vicious for my liking. Attack ads are a cornerstone of political campaigns because dragging your opponent through the mud is a fast way to gallop toward an ever-so-special seat in a fancy delegation or council.

If politicians are all scummy (as many voters believe), the less scummy choice is the way to go.

Going negative often accomplishes the goal of making you the less scummy choice in a way that is faster and far more impressive than positive attempts to build up your reputation ever could be.

So goes the story of the 2012 Presidential primary, a laugh-a-minute ride that has placed at center-ring the oddly likable yet confusing and confused former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

Cain is considered by many to be a top-tier presidential candidate placing him in company with “front-runner” Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, the GOP’s southern representative in the race.

Cain’s candidacy is a lesson for PR professionals everywhere. It simultaneously reinforces some fundamental tenets of several popular schools of PR philosophy while flying in the face of conventional wisdom.

Cain has risen to the top by differentiating himself from the other candidates in the race. Standing as the only businessman in the primary, Cain has accomplished no small feat in securing solid, if eye-popping, support from the GOP base (recently renamed the “Tea Party” in an effort to repackage the average GOP voter).

He has taken on two experienced, powerful governors, a former Speaker of the House, and a high-level Congresswoman. He has leap-frogged most, if not all, of them.

By diverging and standing out, Cain’s candidacy is a testament to the public relations style Al and Laura Ries recommended in The Origin of Brands.

By the same token, Cain’s recent handling of his campaign’s first unofficial crisis has been, in the eyes of most PR professionals, appalling.

Cain was recently accused of sexual harassment by five separate women (two at first, followed by one a week and a half later, followed by two more), starting October 20 of this year. He has broken the eleventh commandment several times since then, first claiming that he did not recall settling the dispute monetarily, then claiming to vaguely recall settling for two or three months’ salary when the actual amount was a full year’s worth of pay.

Lying to the press is never a good option.

Or at least, that’s what most communications professionals will tell you.

Apparently, Cain’s fibs have had little impact on his likability. As late as last week, Cain had yet to drop in national or state polls (though that might be changing).

But in most polls coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, he is still a contender. While Newt Gingrich has risen as of late, the support he has gained appears to be coming mostly from undecided voters and candidates not named Cain.

Perhaps the news is having a delayed reaction on voters who are simply waiting for the goose to cook, but that seems somewhat unlikely in the digital communications era, in which absolutely nothing is delayed for long.

It didn’t take long for Gary Hart to drop out of the Democratic race once busted for adultery in 1976, so it shouldn’t take this long for Cain to feel the effects of a sexual harassment scandal in 2011.

Then again, adultery is considered by many to be the bigger crime in that it breaks a commandment.

But once a headline grows sensational enough and involves the word “sex,” the specificity of the issue begins to pale in comparison to the realm in which the issue exists (sex and violence tend to get more attention than financial impropriety).

Cain’s resilience is likely based on yet another basic PR understanding: brand loyalty.

Cain’s message has resonated with the GOP faithful and he is being rewarded for that. Cain is viewed as loyal to the conservative cause, so his followers return the favor in kind.

Regardless of the truth of his commitment (Cain’s confusion over the issue of abortion stands as one possible reason for his supporters to raise their eyebrows), he has been successful in forging an image as a conservative warhorse and a presidential mainstay.

The candidate’s brand has (so far) saved him, Cain and simple.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr, CC 2.0