When the boss is called to testify

If you’re doing investor relations for a Wall Street firm, oil company or some other used-to-be-obscenely-profitable-but-now-seeking-a-bailout enterprise, your CEO may be called before a congressional committee.

Pass him a link to “Six Traps for a Designated Villain in Washington,” Oct. 27 in The New York Times’ DealBook. It won’t help, but it’s a good chuckle, at least for the public-humiliation genre.

Citing the performance by Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld earlier this month, who “did a particularly good job of playing the baddie,” PR professional Paul Pendergrass suggests six traps to be avoided in the congressional hearing room. For example:

Say one thing; ooze another. Hire seasoned corporate speechwriters to articulate the appropriate personal feelings. Stare down into the page, and read your opening statement as if you’ve having to translate it from the original high German.

Maybe it’s not fair to pick on Fuld. Few corporate leaders survive with either their dignity or their reputation intact after being dragged into an Inquisition. One more trap is confirming you’re out of touch by “trying to prove what a regular guy you are”:

Tell stories that are meant to demonstrate your personal hardship, bootstrapping or connection with Main Street, but that instead reveal that you no longer have hundreds of millions, but only dozens of millions.

CEOs can’t win this game, obviously. When the subpoena arrives, it’s too late. Rather than wait for such a disaster, corporate staffers should try – now – to stop the managerial behavior and/or financial slide that could land the company in the headlines. And good luck.

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