TJ WhiteTJ White

Something bad has happened: The organization you’re tasked with leading and defending has found itself in the crosshairs of Capitol Hill. Removing, for a moment, what’s occurred that has brought you to this crossroads, it’s important to look at the facts:

• You have very little time to prepare.

• What little time you do have to prepare will be spent with your lawyers, going over the myriad ways you could inadvertently set yourself—and your organization—up for a liability nightmare. And, as a result,

• You may lose sight of the significant communications opportunity your upcoming testimony will provide you to set the record straight to stakeholder groups that matter.

Taking a step back, very few people want to be called to testify in front of the Senate or Congress. It’s okay to be less than excited. More often than not, you, as the conduit of your organization’s message, are rarely in control. You get a handful of minutes to provide your written testimony, after which you prepare for the hours-long onslaught of friendly and unfriendly questions from various members of the committee or subcommittee.

Those questions may include:

“Why have you made it more difficult for the average American to live their life?”

“Why the blatant disregard for America’s national security?”

“Why have you paid only $12,000 in taxes over the past five years?”

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

The list of difficult and uncomfortable questions is endless. Who’s your most important consigliere at this moment? Your lawyers help ensure that anything you say will not result in opening yourself or your organization up to legal liability. So, who’s your second-most important consigliere? Your crisis communications consultant.

In lockstep, your respective legal and crisis communications counsel can help you see around the corner on two fronts: that of upcoming litigation risk and that of imminent public relations risk. Ideally, the two are aligned. It’s the five percent of the time when they aren’t that are most critical, and the onus is on the entire working group to find creative ways to satisfy those conflicting issues.

The issue with total and unequivocal alignment to legal strategy is simple: it will only make sense to your most “sophisticated” stakeholders, typically a relatively small percentage for most organizations, as it requires them to understand the rationale for certain messaging decisions you have to make. In times of crisis, it’s imperative that your stakeholders, regardless of “sophistication,” adequately understand what has happened, why it happened and what your organization is doing about it—and you can’t expect the majority of your constituents to have a cursory understanding of legal liability. This is exactly where your crisis communications counsel can make the difference. Crisis communications professionals are experts at understanding specific pain points for various stakeholder groups, testing messaging in a controlled environment and anticipating reactions.

Just recently we saw, in many ways, a masterclass on how not to marry the legal risks with the PR risks thanks to testimony from the presidents—some now former—of the University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. If their respective testimony in December taught us anything it’s this: Failure to speak clearly to all of your stakeholders can—and often does—result in immeasurable damage to brand equity and reputation.


  1. Bring your crisis communications counsel into the mix early—we play well in the sandbox with your legal counsel, we promise—and make mock Q&A as much a part of your preparation as the crafting of your prepared remarks.
  2. Take the time to study the officials on the committee and anticipate lines of questioning so you can proactively address them in your prepared remarks. It’s a lot easier to make a point on your terms than on someone else’s in Q&A.
  3. Above all else, if you’ve been backed against a wall by a line of questioning, take the time you need to formulate a thoughtful response. Don’t regurgitate what others on the panel have said; there’s no strength in numbers when there’s no strength in the character of your collective words.

Does anyone realistically believe that these presidents are themselves anti-Semitic? Probably not, but they over-indexed on the impact their legalized language could have on liability—both for their institutions and their students—and ended up in an inadvisable position where they couldn’t provide anywhere close to an adequate answer to the question “Does calling for the genocide of Jews constitute a breach of your school’s code of conduct,” which should be a very easy answer to get right, and yet ...

While we can’t rewrite what’s happened, it’s important for people who find themselves thrust into the limelight of a Capitol Hill hearing to not make the same mistakes that the presidents of Penn, Harvard and MIT did. A lot of the pain and anguish that their commentary has brought can—and should—have been easily avoidable with a well-thought-out communications strategy that takes the full stakeholder universe into account.


TJ White is Managing Director, Head of Special Situations at Sloane & Company.