A Right Honorable Grilling…

It can be a humiliating ritual, an ever more frequent “revenge fest”, the modern equivalent of being tarred and feathered or pelted with rotten tomatoes (or pies in the case of Rupert Murdoch). Every few months we hear about a CEO or senior executive being summoned to receive a grilling from a group of angry MPs, witnessed by an impatient and excited media baying for blood.

BBC Director-General George Entwistle’s appearance last week in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee over the Jimmy Savile affair is the latest example of an evidence session to make the front pages. More often than not, however, it is the private sector, which is on the receiving end of such attention, with the recent high profile scandals around Olympic security, LIBOR and phone hacking arguably reaching their most frenzied state whilst under the spotlight of the relevant select committee.

For company executives, an appearance in front of a parliamentary select committee can be a traumatic experience. Once in the room, there is no hiding place. MPs – well versed in theatrical expressions of astonishment and disbelief – will regularly try to outdo each other in their attempts to unsettle and intimidate their witness. Indeed, many MPs will see this as their moment to shine – after all, there’s few better ways of displaying your man-of-the-people credentials than by taking a sharp-suited corporate boss down a peg or two.

Sometimes this behavior is justified. Many witnesses in front of the committee have had to answer for serious failings – serious issues which demand public scrutiny. It is after all, the Committee’s job to get to the bottom of these issues concerning wrongdoing or negligence and make recommendations to prevent similar occurrences from happening again.

However, on occasions, the damage to a company’s reputation is compounded by a CEO appearing woefully unprepared in front of the Committee. When seemingly simple questions are unable to be answered, false accusations are allowed to stand, or worse, company policy is seemingly made up on the spot under pressure, there will almost certainly be concerns raised about the company’s management. A bad select committee performance can have serious consequences – it can cause alarm among shareholders, customers and regulators and has even been known to cause senior-level resignations.

What can be done to prevent such catastrophes? Well, these dangers can be minimised by the right preparation and training; key lines need to be agreed, the robustness of answers need to be tested and pitfalls need to be identified. Often, it’s an outside perspective that’s required to examine and tackle any weak spots and ask the challenging questions beforehand. An outside voice can address problems associated with company groupthink and challenge a CEO in a way that those within the company would be unable to do. It also helps if the outside voice – whether an individual or a consultancy – has the right knowledge and expertise of the broader public policy environment and likely views and motivations of the MPs on the committee.

When done properly, the right preparation and training for select committees can pay real dividends. An appearance in front of a committee need not be the car crash that’s feared. In fact, a strong performance will demonstrate the strength of a management team and effectively communicate the company’s messages to the wider world.

Furthermore, it will disappoint those baying for blood and will mean that the metaphorical rotten tomatoes will be avoided.

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