In the Hot Seat: Preparing for Congressional Testimony

By Michael Hotra

There has been no shortage of ink spilled in the last week on testimony delivered in the House Committee on Education & the Workforce by the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT on whether those universities’ policies would sanction those who called for the genocide of the Jewish people.

The equivocation and parsing in the presidents’ answers – individually and collectively – led to the resignation of Penn President M. Elizabeth Magill. Now, the presidents of MIT and Harvard are also under increasing pressure to resign, and the Committee has promised to investigate all three schools.

While we don’t know everyone involved in these witness’ preparation, the outcome is not good. The backlash has ended the career of one university president, imperiled the careers of two more and besmirched the reputations of the universities they serve. Based on our experience, and what we have been able to observe, best practice counsels a different approach.

  • Build the Right Team. Lobbyists, lawyers and communicators all have equal roles to serve in effective witness preparation and each “leg” of the witness prep “stool” is essential. Lawyers ensure that written and oral testimony is accurate, truthful and consistent with the law and policy at issue in a hearing. Lobbyists know the members of Congress, their agendas and can likely, working with committee staff, anticipate which members will ask the witnesses zingers. Communicators should draft the witness’ oral statement, help develop plain English answers to tough questions, and manage media that cover the committee and the issues on the agenda.
  • Have a strategy for the committee hearing. There’s a reason committee members are elevated while the witness is at ground level; they’re the stars of the show! They set the agenda, often give lengthy statements, and ask tough questions of the witnesses. They also have subpoena power. It is essential that every witness prep have a strategy. Particularly when witnesses are called as a panel, each one should appreciate whether they are likely to be the main event and fielding most of the questions, an opening act with one or two likely areas of focus or questioning, or a sideshow to the discussion, there to address a key point or share specific area of expertise.
  • Know your witness. Is the witness comfortable facing tough questions and being challenged? Do they naturally tend to give overly lengthy and detailed answers, or “just the facts?” Is the witness slow to anger, or quick to get hot? Are they self-aware and coachable? Those personal attributes should inform the witness prep process, to ensure that the witness receives appropriate coaching, without making them appear over-rehearsed or in authentic.
  • Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. The most effective witnesses are the most prepared, by lawyers, lobbyists and communicators working together. If possible, witnesses should meet with members and staff in advance of a hearing, and likely more than once. They should review, revise and rehearse their testimony and Q&A and practice through multiple “mock” hearings designed to be tougher than the actual hearing. Witnesses should expect tough questions from well prepared members, each of whom has his or her own policy, political and communications staff. We sometimes see witnesses resist this thorough approach for two reasons – ego (“I don’t need it”) and time (“I’m too busy”) – with predictable adverse consequences.
  • Remain vigilant during the hearing. Lobbyists should solicit feedback from committee staff in real time, and the communications team should check in regularly with reporters and monitor social media, especially X for feedback. Lawyers should track the witness’ answers carefully to ensure both their accuracy (most witnesses are under oath) and consistency with law and policy.
  • Have a plan if things go wrong. Even the best prepared witnesses are only human. Have a plan, with clear roles and responsibilities assigned in advance, if a witness makes a newsworthy or embarrassing mistake. Know how to convene a team to address (and hopefully fix) the issue that same day.

For consultants, preparing a witness also requires courage. Witnesses are often senior corporate, academic, or government officials and coaching them requires trust, tact, delicacy and the courage to push back on answers or approaches that may feel right to the witness, but will lead to bad outcomes before the committee or in the media afterwards. By building a team, preparing against a strategy, and delivering effective testimony and credible answers, a witness can capably serve the interests they represent, and walk off Capitol Hill, if not unscathed, with just a few scratches.