Congressional Hearings: A Legislative Function with a Communications Goal

Plenty of companies, organizations and individuals will likely find themselves as a storyline thread in the weaving of a very public and highly contentious narrative. The 112th Congress is well underway.

And with that, speculation from various corners about what our lawmakers will actually be able to achieve in the next two years. With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, the answer in terms of new policy is likely not much.

Should bipartisan consensus fail to emerge on major legislation, lawmakers won’t hesitate to use Congress’ oversight powers to drive their key messages heading into the 2012 elections. Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already promised to hold “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks” – that’s 280 hearings for those keeping score at home. His fellow House committee chairmen have announced a number of investigation targets of their own, and the Senate won’t be silent either, seeking a political counterpoint. The ensuing hearings will be wide ranging in subject matter and may look into such high-profile topics as the stimulus program, health care reform and bank bailouts.

If Congressional leaders keep up with their ambitious goals, plenty of companies, organizations and individuals will likely find themselves as a storyline thread in the weaving of a very public and highly contentious narrative. The goal on the other side of the dais is as much about communications and shaping public opinion as it is about legislation. Because of that, every strategy for addressing these hearings and investigations must include a communications component.

If you find yourself embroiled in one of these hearings, five steps should be taken to position you for the best possible outcome:

1. Move Quickly.

Be the first to reach out to committee staff, committee members, the media and other key influencers to help form their opinions before they’ve been shaped by someone else. After initial contact, continue to be prompt and responsive to their inquiries.

2. Frame the Message.

Determine the messages that resonate most with target audiences, and consistently deliver them to Congress, the media, the public and other stakeholders. Be mindful of the influence of those outside Congress on the decision-making process of lawmakers, especially members of the media and opinion leaders.

3. Send the Right Messenger.

Ensure that the person carrying your message is the one considered most credible by those listening. Choose someone fully knowledgeable on the issue and well trained for the interactions he or she will face.

4. Integrate Communications, Government Relations and Legal Activities.

Make certain that these three critical functions are working together toward the common goal. Avoid making decisions and taking actions from silos. Public affairs problems are solved by having the best team in place and working together across all of these areas.

5. Prepare Vigorously.

Know the committee, their staff and key reporters. Learn who your supporters and critics are -- and those on the fence who you might be able to persuade. Understand the rules and procedures. Anticipate the tough questions. Practice tirelessly for your testimony and your interactions with the media. Be ready for every conceivable scenario.

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While these steps are the foundation of a larger strategy, it is our experience that if followed, they will help you or your organization achieve a positive outcome. We invite you to learn more about our approach to hearings and investigations by clicking here.