When a campaign is confronted with a controversy, Crisis Management 101 offers some basic guidelines: know the facts, get the truth out, and stick to the story. Herman Cain’s presidential campaign, confronted with allegations of sexual harassment, somehow managed yesterday to get all of this backwards.

Keep in mind, Politico first started asking the Republican campaign about the allegations 10 days before publishing its report yesterday. In other words, Cain and his team knew this story was coming, and had all kinds of time to prepare.

And they still managed to screw it up, offering a series of “shifting explanations,” many of which contradicted each other.

Since POLITICO published a story Sunday night revealing that the NRA had reached financial settlements with two women who accused Cain of inappropriate behavior, Cain and his spokesmen have offered a shifting and inconclusive series of responses.

The result is that a story that would have been damaging to Cain under any circumstances now threatens to derail his campaign permanently as the former trade association chief’s honesty comes into question.

The Cain campaign first attacked the story without denying its accuracy, then said the story is wrong, and then effectively conceded that the basics of the story were accurate. Cain said he’d never been accused of harassment, then said he had been accused, but the charges were false. Cain said he knew “nothing” about the financial settlement with the accusers, then changed his mind, and said he “was aware” about one of them and even offered details on Fox News.

Cain even said he’d referred the allegations to the National Restaurant Association’s human-resources department at the time, and that wasn’t true, either.

Remember, the candidate and his team had a week and a half to prepare for this campaign bombshell. The Cain campaign had all kinds of time to get the facts, understand the details, and formulate a public response. Indeed, one can imagine a perfectly competent response to the story, which could have been offered yesterday morning: “I was accused; the charges were false; here’s how I and my organization responded at the time….”

Instead, the top-tier Republican looked bad when the allegations came to light and managed to look worse when he couldn’t keep his story straight. Even the most ardent Cain backers would have to concede a campaign that contradicts itself, over and over again, despite plenty of lead time, is not where it needs to be.

For that matter, if the allegations against Cain are accurate, his career in politics should come to an abrupt end.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.