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Saturday, December 23, 2023

PR Fail: The Ivy Antisemitism Hearing

Hailey Fuchs and Michael Stratford at Politico:
The appearance of three elite university presidents on Capitol Hill this month to testify about campus antisemitism was a flamboyant debacle — prompting a national backlash and repercussions that forced at least one resignation and demands for more.

In certain circles of Washington and New York, the conversation is turning toward a less visible dimension of the controversy: Who got paid to give advice on one of the most disastrous public relations moments in modern memory?

The answer, in part, is that the university leaders were being advised by some of the most prominent legal and communications experts in the field of “crisis communications.” Now, the crisis communicators are in a PR crisis of their own: Rather than communicating, they are hunkering down in the storm. They’ve declined to comment publicly, even as critics say they share culpability for an episode that devastated the reputations of their clients.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill is out of her job. MIT President Sally Kornbluth, meanwhile, has withstood calls for her firing. So has Harvard President Claudine Gay, though she’s been engulfed by a plagiarism scandal that has only intensified in the wake of the hearing.

The moment that quickly proliferated on social media from the five-hour hearing was questioning from Stefanik, in which the New York Republican asked the university leaders whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their universities’ codes of conduct. They each responded with qualified and conditional answers, telling Stefanik that it would depend on the context of the statements.

 High-profile Washington hearings that have the potential to become politically contentious usually involve some sort of mock hearing with the witnesses and their advisers. The team will plan for possible critical questions or lines of attack, and the witnesses may be hammered by people who they have not yet met. If they are available, former members of Congress — with experience in the hearing room — may ask the questions.

“The preparation and the result is tantamount to kind of political malpractice,” said a lobbyist in the higher education space, granted anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “They did not do the things nor posture their response to what was [coming] for that hearing in any way to adequately prepare.

Even amid the bipartisan momentum that had built earlier this year around banning TikTok, the chief executive officer of that social media app left Capitol Hill largely unscathed after his testimony before House lawmakers in March. A lobbyist with knowledge of those meeting preparations emphasized that the TikTok hearing lacked the same kind of breakthrough viral moment, “the definition of success, I think, when you are Daniel in a lion’s den.”