Fraser Seitel
Fraser Seitel

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is, forgive me, a wimp.

A bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, Mayorkas is the epitome of the gutless political appointee: prissy, proper, halting-in-speech and oh-so-cautious when it comes to answering questions about his job or policies. No wonder Secretary Mayorkas has become the bane of Congressional Republicans, the poster boy for President Biden’s disastrous border immigration policies, which will form the basis of—groan—Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign to retake the American presidency.

So, there wasn’t anything unusual when, at the end of October, Mayorkas slid into the torture seat before the U.S. Senate to endure a predictable tongue-lashing from his archenemy Josh Hawley, the unctuous Senator from Missouri. On this morning, Hawley was particularly enraged by a DHS employee who surreptitiously posted anti-Israel messages on social media. After Mayorkas flailed out to object, Hawley thundered, “Don’t come to this hearing room when Israel has been invaded ... with Jewish students threatened for their lives … and you have employees celebrating genocide ... and you’re saying it’s despicable for me to ask the question.”

With Mayorkas bristling, the aggrieved Senator, on cue, yielded back to the chair. Just like always. But suddenly, something came over the terminally timid Mayorkas that made this particular scene gruelingly different.

“Mr. Chairman,” said Mayorkas, “Senator Hawley takes an adversarial approach toward me. Perhaps he doesn’t know my own background. I am the child of a Holocaust survivor. My mother lost all her family at the hands of the Nazis. So, I find his tone to be entirely misplaced and disrespectful of me and my heritage.”

With the stunned Hawley sputtering in the background, the hearing moved on. Mayorkas had, by getting unusually personal, for once won the day.

This brings us full circle to December's pathetic Congressional crucifixion of the three embarrassing college presidents.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

The early December House of Representatives appearance to discuss the outbreak of anti-Semitism on college campuses by the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania has become, in a remarkably short amount of time, a cautionary public relations tale on how not to speak in public.

Their mealy-mouthed testimonies—nearly identical in each case—were tributes to equivocation, evasion, changing the subject and bothsidesism. Each so misread the gravity of the situation that Penn President Liz Magill almost instantaneously lost her job, Harvard President Claudine Gay lost her credibility and MIT President Sally Kornbluth lost her reputation as a world-class scientific intellect.

President Kornbluth, in fact, never should have been at the hearing in the first place. While UPenn and Harvard were hotbeds of anti-Semitic activity, MIT’s flare-ups were more muted. While Magill and Gay were newcomers to their universities, Kornbluth had been a respected scientist at MIT for nearly three decades. A month before the fateful Congressional appearance, Kornbluth launched a Standing Together Against Hate initiative at MIT. But while the President of Columbia University—the scene of heated anti-Semitism disputes—successfully ducked the Congressional invitation, the MIT President naively accepted. Big mistake.

After listening to Kornbluth unravel before Congress, MIT student Talia Khan sadly concluded, “I know the President and think she has a heart, but I didn’t see that in her testimony.”

And that, dear public relations readers, is the point. Instead of following their hearts, as Alejandro Mayorkas did, the under-siege university presidents decided, to their ultimate reputational detriment, to follow their lawyers. It was a fatal mistake.

In a crisis, counsel candor not ‘context’

Ironically, both Harvard and UPenn used the same Washington white-shoe law firm, WilmerHale, to advise their presidents on testifying before Congress. President Kornbluth, who, like Secretary Mayorkas is Jewish and has Holocaust survivors as part of her family, also reportedly met with the same law firm.

Summoning lawyers to advise in crisis isn’t unusual for universities or corporations, presidents or CEOs.

The reason lawyers like WilmerHale get the first call in critical Congressional testimony is because most university presidents or CEOs don’t want to go to jail. Makes sense. So, the counsel that the WilmerHale’s of the world generally recommend is to stay vague, non-specific and contextual. Don’t stick your neck out or get too personal, they advise, and live to fight another day.

Public relations counselors, on the other hand, are more concerned with safeguarding one’s reputation than deceptively dodging bullets to avoid the slammer. Tell the truth, read the room and make it personal is the advice that good public relations counselors proffer.

Accordingly, the key moment in the House hearing came when bulldog Republican Elise Stefanik asked the three presidents whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their school’s code of conduct. When pushed to answer yes or no, soon-to-be former President Magill responded, “It is a context-dependent decision.” President Gay agreed, “It can be depending on the context.” To which Rep. Stefanik now famously responded, “It does not depend on the ‘context.’ The answer is 'yes,' and that’s why you should resign.”

Harvard’s President. Gay, unlike Ms. Magill, hasn’t resigned yet. Nor is she likely to any time soon. But maybe next time she’s faced with a crisis aimed squarely at ruining her reputation, she’ll think twice about hiring lawyers to do the work more suited to the expertise of experienced public relations counselors.


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].