Don’t let the suits, grim faces and bad lighting fool you; Congressional hearings play an important role in shaping news every day. A well-timed hearing can bring widespread media attention to a topic that was below the nation’s radar – not to mention bringing prestige or notoriety to the presiding member of Congress. With cameras rolling and an attendant press corps on site recording every word, a congressional hearing can provide a big part to your strategic public relations program.
I’ll devote a future blog post to methods you can use to be called as a witness. For now, however, let’s focus on how to navigate this environment and create positive media opportunities if you find yourself or your client on the witness list. Here are a few tips from our government relations pros:
- Arrive early and stay late. Before the clerk begins letting in members of the public, a hearing room is a networking goldmine for public relations professionals. You can find lobbyists and government relations executives from various third-party witness groups, journalists from a variety of media outlets, and influential congressional staffers, such as press secretaries and chiefs of staff. Not only is it advantageous to network with these high-power players before and after a hearing, but you are also acting as a representative of your client or organization.
- No matter what, get face time with the press secretary. Engaging press secretaries is the most direct way to create a relationship between a member of Congress and your client. When introducing yourself, try to make a statement about your client that appeals to the member’s constituent focus. It will make you a more memorable resource a press secretary might return to when in need of more information.
- Leave the bells and whistles at the door. As public relations professionals, we hold our PowerPoint and video presentations near and dear to our hearts. However, when your client is prepping for testimony, it is important to keep their testimony as simple and straightforward as possible. Witnesses are only allowed three minutes to make their case before a board of senators; it is best to simply give an oral presentation rather than fussing with PowerPoint slides, video presentations and other high-tech demonstrations. The more intricate your presentation gets, the more errors you risk.
- Put yourself in the Member’s shoes. Members of Congress are always thinking about their next campaign, even when they are moderating seemingly unrelated hearings. You can bet that a Member has made sure at least one media outlet from their state or district will be present at their hearing. Do your research. If you can’t get a press list before a hearing, try to identify the local publications and broadcasters the member of Congress cares about reaching and then offer your client as a source.
- Measure. Once the hearing is over, monitor all of the resulting news, even if it doesn’t directly relate to your client. This way, you can observe the implications your hearing had from a number of different perspectives and audiences. Read the comments on news websites, search the Twitter hashtag—do all that you can to gage the public’s response. Who knows, you may even find a new media relations angle to access in future campaigns.
Serving as a witness at a Congressional Hearing takes as much planning and strategy as it would to create a traditional PR campaign. While drafting your testimony, take time to define your objectives, research media opportunities and measure all results. Taking these extra steps can leverage a hearing to a strategic tactic within an overarching PR campaign. As a marketing and PR firm based in D.C. and Seattle, RH Strategic prides itself in approaching government relations from a tactful perspective.