Cautionary Tale on the Need for Crisis and Reputation Management Counsel
Former University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill, who is a lawyer, resigned last week after answering a politically charged question in a congressional hearing with a lawyer-like answer. What happened is a textbook case on the need of crisis communications counsel.
Magill, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, were summoned to a House committee hearing to testify about antisemitic statements by students on their campuses. The hearing wasn’t intended to be a campus forum. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-New York, saw it as a golden opportunity to take a swipe against three elite universities.
Lawyers are trained to foresee and prepare for loaded questions in court. Crisis communications counselors are adept at preparing responses to loaded questions in the court of public opinion. From all appearances, Magill didn’t avail herself of competent crisis counsel. Instead, she became yet another cautionary tale of what can happen without such counsel.
Looking for a Sound Bite
Stefanik came to the hearing prepared to light a firestorm and elicit a sound bite. She asked, “Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” Without sensing the trap, Magill replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”
“So the answer is yes?” asked Stefanik. “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill said. Stefanik jumped on her reply: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews depends on the context?”
“That’s your testimony today? Calling for the
genocide of Jews depends on the context?”
The exchange immediately sparked a wave of criticism, from Pennsylvania’s governor and its two Democratic senators to voices at her university, just as Stefanik hoped.
Magill apologized, but continued with her lawyerly explanation. In a video, she explained: “In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say speech alone is not punishable. I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil – plain and simple.”
Too Little, Too Late
It was too little, too late. By the end of the week, 26,000 people had signed a petition calling for her to resign. A wealthy hedge fund manager threatened to withdraw a $100 million donation to the university. The university’s reputation was under fire as well as Magill’s.
Under the pressure, Magill resigned. The chair of the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees offered a measured defense and accurate assessment: “Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, she was not herself last Tuesday. Over-prepared and over-lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong. It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony.”
Legalistic Answer to a Loaded Question
The board chair, who also resigned, was only partially right. Magill gave an “over-lawyered” answer to a loaded political question. Magill and her advisers focused on how her remarks would play back on campus, not on national media. Magill wasn’t overly prepared; she was improperly prepared.
For anyone vaguely familiar with congressional hearings, especially ones with charged subject matter that attracts TV cameras and news reporters, witnesses should expect gotcha questions that generate newsy sound bites and snappy social media posts. Magill unwittingly obliged and lost her job.
“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik gloated. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America. This forced resignation of the president of UPenn is the bare minimum of what is required.”
A Top-Notch Lawyer
By all accounts, Magill is a respected attorney and a thoughtful school administrator. While praiseworthy, that’s like saying a skilled swimmer knows how to fend off an aggressive shark.
Fending off a shark usually means deflecting it before it gets too close. Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad swam from Havana to Key West with the aid of experienced divers using Shark Shields to repel sharks. Magill needed a Shark Shield in her testimony and answers to questions.
Crisis communication counselors, especially ones with personal experience in political settings, can offer Shark Field training. Good advice would have been to craft an upfront response like this: “Freedom of expression is an important tenet for college communities. Calling for genocide of any person, of any background, of any faith is wrong at any time, at any place and especially on a college campus.” That may not have pre-empted Stefanik’s baiting, but it may have redirected her questioning.
At issue is more than moral courage to say what needs to be said. It is the savvy to understand and respond to the circumstances, the kind of savvy advice that experienced crisis counselors provide.
The biggest obstacle to gaining this advice is an overly self-confident belief you don’t need it. The unwinding of Magill’s presidency and the dent to her reputation is evidence of hubris substituting for useful advice.
The biggest obstacle to gaining crisis communications advice
is an overly self-confident belief you don’t need it.
Crisis Communications Skills
A first-order communication skill is recognizing a looming crisis and preparing for it. The American Bar Association encourages lawyers to acquire crisis communications skills, but also to avail themselves of crisis communications counsel. Being a good lawyer doesn’t mean automatically being good at public relations or reputation management.
Ironically, crisis communications counselors typically partner with attorneys in developing public defenses of their mutual clients. Attorneys focus on the law and the logic. Crisis communicators deal with the context and the storytelling. It can be a powerful combination.
Magill and her fellow university presidents would have benefitted from the advice of crisis counselors familiar with congressional hearings and baited questions. A fair number of crisis counselors at some point in their careers have worked on Capitol Hill and drafted baited questions for their congressional bosses. Their professional careers now ride on their experience of preserving reputations at risk by knowing how to repel sharks.
In Magill’s situation, she knew what she would be asked. Her answer at the hearing wasn’t spontaneous. It was prepared like a lawyer’s response to a judge, not like a response to a public jury.
Reputations are too precious to risk. Being prepared means recognizing the nature of the risk and using the right kind of shark repellent.
(Pat McCormick contributed to this blog.)