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Crisis PR expert calls testimony of elite college presidents an 'embarrassment' that could've been avoided

(L-R) Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A crisis PR expert called the answers from Harvard president Claudine Gay (left), Penn president Elizabeth Magill (middle-left), and MIT president Sally Kornbluth (right) were an "embarrassment."Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
  • Presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT are dealing with fallout from their answers before Congress.

  • We asked PR and legal professionals who coach execs in how to answer lawmakers' questions for their take.

  • "It's an embarrassment that they were not prepared," one crisis PR expert told BI.

Tech executives hauled in front of Congress often give highly polished answers in the hot seat, even as they're grilled by lawmakers.

It's no coincidence.

They've hired crisis communications and lawyers to coach them ahead of time on the questions to expect and how to avoid a PR disaster — the kind of PR disaster that the presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT currently find themselves in after failing to say whether calls for the "genocide of Jews" violated their schools' conduct codes.

"Even before you get the formal invitation to come to Washington before a congressional hearing, you hire an expert who is on the other side, like me, to prep you for the best case scenario and the worst case scenario questioning," Mike Paul, a crisis PR expert and CEO of Reputation Doctor, told Business Insider. "If that happened, they wouldn't have given those answers."

All that prep and rehearsing is intended to help avoid generating a viral "YouTube moment," said Chris Armstrong, a partner at Holland and Knight who has counseled clients through January 6 investigations and conducted Congressional probes in the House of Representatives.

"When helping a client prepare for a congressional hearing, the goal is usually to help them perform in a way that is knowledgeable, respectful, and, ultimately, forgettable," said Armstrong, who declined to speak directly on the case of the three college presidents, but offered his insight on how he'd advise clients faced with similarly sensitive questions.

During the questioning, Harvard president Claudine Gay avoided answering "yes" or "no" after being pressed further.

"My advice is only answer 'yes' or 'no' if the actual, truthful answer is yes or no," Armstrong told BI.

Paul, the crisis PR expert, said the presidents mishandled the question, plain and simple, calling it "an embarrassment that they were not prepared."

"If you're an Ivy League university president, the person who's normally whispering in your ear in good times should not be the person who's whispering in your ear in bad times," Paul said. "It's a totally different area of expertise."

According to Paul — who has worked with colleges in crises throughout his decades-long career — the administrators should've used their resources to better "prepare for the worst-case scenario."

"Never have situational ethics and values around these concrete issues that define who you are as a university," Paul told BI.

"You have to be crystal clear as to who you are and what you stand for," he added.

Although neither expert worked directly with the schools for this hearing, they both emphasized the need to repeatedly rehearse with a wide range of questions beforehand to prepare for the testimony.

Penn president Elizabeth Magill, MIT president Sally Kornbluth, and Harvard's Claudine Gay have since issued statements to clarify, amend, or even apologize for their answers.

"Which one is correct? What you said on the Hill or after you heard the backlash when you went home," Paul asked. '"The university's reputation is still in crisis."

The fallout from their testimony was swift — and has continued in recent days.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman called for all three school presidents to "resign in disgrace" following the hearing. One Penn donor has already threatened to pull an $100 million donation if Magill doesn't resign. Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania called the answers "unacceptable."

Two days after her testimony, Gay apologized for her remarks during an interview with The Harvard Crimson on Thursday.

Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University
Harvard president Claudine Gay has since apologized for her answer on whether calling for Jewish genocide is against the school's code of conduct.Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

"I am sorry," Gay said to The Crimson. "Words matter."

"When words amplify distress and pain, I don't know how you could feel anything but regret," she added.

Paul said the presidents "skirted" the question when they were there, and then "jumped totally in a different direction with their comments after they believed that the kitchen was too hot in the court of public opinion."

"It is extremely dangerous to have situational ethics," he said. "That's what's happening."

Read the original article on Business Insider