5 Media Training Lessons From the Disastrous Testimony of MIT, Harvard And UPenn Presidents


Ivy League School Presidents testify before congressWhen the presidents of MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania agreed to testify before Congress last December about the antisemitism engulfing their campuses, they couldn’t have predicted the Circle of Hell firestorm that their testimony would generate.

But in hindsight, the trio’s catastrophic testimony under withering assault by Republican Representative Elise Stefanik can provide corporate communications professionals with a lesson in how to (and how not to) prepare for high-stakes presentations and interviews. Whether your leader is giving testimony before Congress, an interview on CNN, or a speech before a thousand employees – she or he can avoid the mistakes of then-presidents Claudine Gay, Sally Kornbluth and Elizabeth Magill.

The widely mocked testimony of these presidents saw them deflecting rather than responding. They clung to prepared, legalistic answers to Representative Stefanik’s questions of whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated their schools’ codes of conduct. The semantic grenade whose pin they pulled was their claim that evaluating calls for mass slaughter was a “context-dependent decision.”

If you or your company’s leaders are facing a bet-the-farm, high stakes presentation as these presidents did, here are five lessons to draw from their self-immolation before Congress:

  1. Don’t Be Betrayed By Body Language

What undermined UPenn’s Magill from the start were her discordant facial expressions. In particular, Magill was undone by the smirk that betrayed her own anxiety. But that grin communicated to the public that she took the topic of genocide lightly.

Of course, it’s not just your face that can undermine your interview or presentation – what about your hands? Consider the 1951 Congressional testimony of gangster Frank Costello. The infamous mobster was undone during the Kefauver Crime Hearings when  TV cameras homed in on his twisting fingers – digits which betrayed his discomfort at being forced to answer questions about his nefarious deeds.

Virtually every mock media interview our PR agency performs with clients during rehearsals is shot on video, so the speaker we’re preparing can view how their facial expressions support – or conflict with – their message.  You can practice ways to show calm, thoughtful interest with your body language.

  1. Don’t Become a Parrot

What doomed the testimony of the three presidents was their repetition of the overly-rehearsed phrase “it depends upon the context,” without showing compassion.

Rather than listening to Representative Stefanik’s questions, expressing human empathy and then responding to her, the presidents fell back on their stock answers as a shield. Their testimony came across as inauthentic – ultimately, costing Magill and Gay their jobs and sparking calls for Kornbluth to resign. A proper rehearsal for this testimony would focus not on memorizing a scripted phrase, but rather on responding to questions  as genuinely as possible.

  1. Recognize You Need both Legal Advice and Media Training

According to the New York Times, at least two of the three college presidents were coached prior to their disastrous Congressional testimony by WilmerHale, the Washington, D.C.-based law firm.

Our PR agency has worked with dozens of attorneys over the years, and we deeply respect their expertise. We believe there’s a place for both attorneys and PR counsel in preparing for testimony.

However, the approach of WilmerHale appeared to focus on providing stock answers that its clients could repeat to avoid legal liability. The coaching seemed to focus on hair-splitting about conduct vs. speech, rather than authenticity, let alone empathy. Professor Steven Solomon with the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, noted that all three presidents appeared to be giving “answers in the court and not a public forum.”

At Maccabee, we recommend a collaboration between your PR agency and your law firm. Lawyers rightly are concerned about reducing liability and risk, while PR counselors can also be aware of other issues, such as:

  • How testimony or a speech can appear when quoted in a newspaper or shared in a video clip on social media;
  • How the language in a particular response could alienate a target audience;
  • What unintended emotions the visual presentation could spark; and
  • What communications strategies enhance the credibility of the speaker, so that they seem reasonable and likable.
  1. Know Your Audience

As someone who has testified before Congress in the past, it struck me that the three presidents treated the Congressional hearing room as if they were battling a prosecutor before a jury.

But that was not the audience facing these presidents as they clung to their claims that calling for genocide may be acceptable “depending upon the context.” The actual audiences they were speaking to were seated far outside that hearing room. Those audiences included the billionaire donors to their colleges, alumni, their Boards of Trustees, their current and future students, faculty, and members of Jewish and Christian communities, some of whom might find calls to eliminate the world’s only Jewish nation to be equivalent to genocide.

Had UPenn, MIT and Harvard’s presidents understood the audiences their testimony was reaching, they might have realized that a rote phrase was not a sufficient way to communicate their positions. Rather than operating on defense, a PR firm would have helped the presidents develop an affirmative message, reflecting the commitment to allow an exchange of ideas and concern about their students’ safety and well-being.

  1. Know Your Interrogator

Finally, the blistering questioning that Representative Stefanik subjected the presidents to was predictable. Or toRepresentative Stefanik paraphrase Monty Python, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but all three presidents should have expected Stefanik to grill them like sausages.

Before testifying in front of Stefanik on The Hill, the three presidents should have been shown video footage of Stefanik to familiarize themselves with her combative style. Clearly no one had prepared the presidents for the worst case conflict scenario with the uncomfortable questions Representative Stefanik could – and did – ask.

A vital role for a public relations agency is to research the legislator, journalist or other questioner and then share those insights with their client. The more difficult and public the situation is, the more you need a communications strategy. And that strategy, my friends, is definitely “context-dependent.”

To learn more about the Maccabee agency’s media and presentation training services, visit: https://maccabee.com/what-we-do/media-and-presentation-training/

For more of the Maccabee agency’s insights into how your CEO can effectively testify in political settings, check out this MaccaPR blog post: https://info.maccabee.com/blog/pr-war-stories-preparing-your-ceo-to-testify-before-congress/