Dec 15, 2023 - Business

University PR pain points after congressional hearing on antisemitism

Illustration of a cracked city hall podium

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Leaders from America's top universities muddled their messaging before Congress, and it has cost at least one of them their job.

Why it matters: By all accounts, university leaders should have been prepared for a tense exchange with elected officials from across the aisle.

  • Harvard leadership has received communication counsel from PR powerhouses like Edelman and Precision Strategies, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Yes, but: Legal teams took the lead on hearing preparation, per Axios sources.

  • WilmerHale prepped presidents of both Harvard and Penn and met with MIT leadership ahead of the congressional testimony, per The New York Times.
  • "Attorneys should not lead [on] these issues. We are not in court before a judge or jury. Reputation is determined by the court of public opinion, which is where professional crisis communications is critical," says Mike Paul, CEO of crisis public relations and risk management firm, Reputation Doctor.

Between the lines: Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and Penn President Elizabeth Magill's performance before Congress highlights the complexities of communicating clearly and forcefully while also limiting exposure to legal risk.

  • Their initial convoluted responses to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, landed them before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec. 5.
  • When asked whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violates their schools' codes of conduct, the university heads were unable to provide clear answers.
  • This led to bipartisan outrage, with more than 70 member of Congress demanding that these presidents be fired.

Following the hearing, Penn lost a $100 million donation, which ultimately led to Magill's resignation as university president. A replacement has already been named.

  • Meanwhile, Harvard's board of directors has vowed to stand by Gay following her public apology and MIT's Kornbluth has so far dodged calls for resignation with a show of support from the university's board.

The big picture: High-profile congressional hearings present both a major challenge and opportunity for those testifying — and at the center are carefully crafted, long-term communication strategies.

What they're saying: Often times, these witnesses have much more to lose than the politicians questioning them, says Kurt Bardella, former senior advisor and spokesperson for House Oversight Committee.

  • Political communicators operate like "knife fighters [who can] run circles around the corporate comms, legally-centric operations," which often catches those testifying off guard.
  • "This debacle is exhibit A of why who is the room when you prep for a congressional hearing matters just as much as how much time you devote to hearing prep. It's not enough to have lawyers — you need a seasoned communications operatives who are versed in congressional hearings," Bardella tells Axios.

Zoom in: The stark generational divide on the Israel-Hamas conflict has tripped up universities, fashion brands and major corporations.

  • Universities have come under the most scrutiny due to the division seen across key constituencies of students, alumni and faculty.

The bottom line: One of the biggest communication blunders of the year has elicited a chain reaction across college campuses, board rooms and within the donor community.

  • How a company, brand or university responds to geopolitical issues can directly impact their reputation, funding and ability to attract talent.

Go deeper... The dos and don'ts of congressional hearings.

Go deeper