Apr 6, 2023 - Economy

The dos and don'ts of congressional hearings

Illustration of a gavel surrounded by warning pop ups with exclamation marks.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It has felt like open season for corporate executives on Capitol Hill lately.

Why it matters: High-profile congressional hearings present both a major challenge and opportunity for business leaders — and at the center are carefully crafted, long-term communication strategies.

  • What is said during these hearings can hurt sentiment among consumers, employees and shareholders.

What they're saying: Bipartisan outrage is typical for most high-profile hearings — as we saw recently with TikTok, Norfolk Southern and Starbucks — and the preparations should begin well before the hearing is scheduled.

  • "People think about prep as a consolidated period of time leading up to public questioning by members of Congress, but truly what prep should be is engagement with policymakers, their staff and journalists for weeks, months and years beforehand," Molly Levinson, founder and CEO of The Levinson Group, told Axios.
  • "If journalists covering your company and policymakers regulating your company don't understand your company, a bad hearing result is only the beginning of the challenges that you could face."

The big picture: "The ideal outcome is for an executive to be forthcoming by going on the record answering [House] members’ questions and driving their own messaging without making too many headlines," says Julie Jensen, founder and co-CEO of Jasper Advisors.

  • The hearing itself is simply the forward-facing part of a much longer process, filled with exchanges between public affairs teams and congressional staff.

Yes, but: How an executive engages throughout the hearing matters a lot.

  • Communication extends beyond what is said. How executives react, respond and carry themselves are just as important.

Experts who Axios spoke to shared these dos and dont's ...

  • ❌ Don't bail. When the chief executive doesn't show up, it can reflect poorly on accountability and leadership.
  • Do remember that cameras could be rolling from the time your car pulls up until the time you leave. Every movement is an opportunity to communicate.
  • Don't answer a question to which you don't know the answer. Opt for ‘I don't know the answer to that, but we'll get back to you.’
  • ✅ Do prioritize action-based communication. Respond to questions with clear and simple answers but also show that you've done the work to address the issues at hand.
  • ❌ Don't get baited into an argument. This isn't your home turf and you will lose. Instead, focus on remaining collegial and forthcoming.
  • Don't fall for political showboating but do be prepared for inflamed lines of questioning.
  • ❌ Don't be dismissive or too cavalier. Remember that key stakeholders outside of the hearing room are also watching.
  • ✅ Do create a war room to correct misinformation given during the hearing, monitor social media and brief key journalists, policy influencers and advocates.
  • Do overly communicate with employees. Keeping them in the loop will build confidence and alignment internally.

👀 What we're watching: Labor, cybersecurity, disinformation and banking issues are likely to remain hot topics that could lead to more high-profile hearings — particularly in the lead-up to a big election year.

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