Do politicians and industry bosses fear anything more than being interviewed by a journalist? Chris Meares, the ex-head of HSBC’s private banking division, would probably say “Yes” this morning. Ex-HSBC director and current Chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, might well agree with Meares.
Both weren’t just grilled by a parliamentary select committee yesterday, they were kebab-ed and roasted.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was in charge of the heat settings in this particular select committee “kitchen”, with Margaret Hodge overseeing proceedings as “head chef”.
None of the HSBC executives seemed to have anticipated the flambé about to befall them. Strange.
After all, the clue is in the committee title. Boy, was it public and boy, did they have to account for what had apparently gone on, regardless of what they might or might not have known about it.
If they’d had training to handle what the PAC would dish out, it certainly didn’t look like it.
So for those who might find themselves at risk of a select committee skewering, here’s some advice:
Unlike many media interviews, inquiry panels can be doubly daunting for witnesses because your inquisitors should be well informed. Plus, there’s a chance you’re there because you or your organisation has cocked up. Your answers are probably being beamed live to the nation too. (Even if many have chosen not to tune in, you can bet a sharp-eyed journalist will spot your verbal slip ups, so they make the main news bulletins). Hence you need to do all you can to get off this “back foot”.
Don’t dismiss these committees as simply dull fillers of airtime; they wield great power and influence – ever wondered why most people can name Margaret Hodge and Keith Vaz ahead of Cabinet members?
Further proof is when you consider who else has been humiliated before such a committee:
Rupert Murdoch, Amazon director Andrew Cecil and the former chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers, to name just three.
So it’s a fool who goes before a committee with the attitude “I know all there is to know about this issue, after all, I’m the boss/expert”. (That’s a mindset that dooms an interviewee in a media interview too.)
Here are a few essentials to consider:
- It’s not all about you. Never forget the committee members are being scrutinised by their peers and the public, so they want to look effective. (But there shouldn’t be any attempt at grandstanding here, should there? Of course not.)
- The committee is not the sole audience. Here is an opportunity to talk to those beyond them – perhaps voters, shareholders etc..
- Thorough preparation is everything. We don’t just mean thinking about your key messages; you need a decent knowledge of each committee member: what’s their background, their interests, their pronouncements on the subject etc..?
- You are out of your comfort zone. But the committee members are not – they’re used to this environment. Accept it.
- It will probably feel worse than it is. This is just the same with media interviews. Most people discover they’re happier once they’ve played back their performance after the event.
- Keep it simple. This is not an opportunity to show off. Your inquisitors will have different experience and knowledge, so make sure you’re not alienating any of them.
- Don’t show weakness. The most memorable moments are usually when a committee “senses blood” and goes in for the kill.
Of course there’s much more to an appearance than this, such as whether it’s ever acceptable to say, “I don’t know the answer to that” and above all there’s no substitute for having a proper rehearsal, where you face questions every bit as tough (and probably tougher) than a committee will pose. That’s where we come in.
On the other hand, you might like to ignore all of the above, and adopt the Russell Brand approach to handling a Select Committee.
You do so at your peril.
Of course some might say that if you can’t stand the heat of Hodge, is it time to stay out of the boardroom in the first place?
Probably not, because there’s a lot you can do to avoid making a meal of your performance.
But appearing without training is like cooking a soufflé without a recipe – no shortage of hot air but destined to collapse.