To avoid the fate of so many executives before them, the pharmaceutical companies are shelling out for lawyers and strategic communications experts who specialize in teaching unpopular corporate figures how to survive a Capitol Hill grilling.
STAT spoke with more than a dozen corporate lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations consultants who laid out the extensive preparations that go into avoiding a cable-news catastrophe. Their advice’s central themes: appear contrite and willing to work with lawmakers. Remain humble, even with senators who attack your compensation or lifestyle. And even in the face of aggressive questioning, never — never! — push back with force.
“It’s a dark and elaborate art, preparing an executive for this kind of setting,” said Matt Herrington, a partner at the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson whose practice involves preparing corporations for the gauntlet of Capitol Hill.
The strategy hinges on “being appropriately deferential and not a soundbite,” he added. “Do you want Lester Holt talking about you tonight?”
Once Congress notifies an executive that he or she will be invited to testify on Capitol Hill, teams of lobbyists, lawyers, and corporate communications consultants spring into action. Their first step, typically, is to compile a dossier profiling each of the lawmakers who will participate in the hearing.
Drug companies will also work to develop what consultants call “island statements” — generic, philosophical, and sometimes apologetic lines that corporate executives can retreat to when taking a beating from lawmakers.
Once the outside firms have compiled lawmaker dossiers and workshopped the narrative executives hope to deliver, they subject the CEOs to “murder boards.” The mock hearings, which sometimes feature former lawmakers who grilled corporate figures during their time in Congress, entail hours and hours of a simulated hearing-room environment, during which consultants attempt to simulate the unpredictable and aggressive tone lawmakers may take in attempting to bait executives into gaffes.
The overarching goal: to ensure the preparation sessions are so brutal in tone that the hearing could not possibly be more painful.