Prepare, prepare, prepare for select committee grillings to avoid being cremated

The BBC being hauled over the coals about severance payments has fulled a media feeding frenzy.

Ed Williams: Edelman's UK CEO and ex-director of comms at the BBC
Ed Williams: Edelman's UK CEO and ex-director of comms at the BBC

What is it about the combination of the BBC and a select committee hearing that is catnip for the media? The most recent spectacle generated such frenzied anticipation that Parliament could have cut the national deficit by making it pay per view.

The headlines said it all: "Blame game proves a ratings smash", "Big beasts gear up for battle" and "BBC civil war". But the clash was only the latest in a series of encounters between parliamentary select committees and business leaders that is producing must-watch media.

While the Public Accounts Committee sets the gold standard in grilling, the select committee barbecue has seen serious action recently. Some who testify are lightly grilled, others more carbonised. The result is acres of newspaper copy and great content for the 24-hour news channels, and the setting like concrete of the public image of those who testify.

The power of the select committee to command mass media attention is relatively new. But for those testifying, unless thoroughly prepared, it can be a career-limiting opportunity, not least because of the media glare these appearances now command.

The US military coined the phrase "murder board" to describe preparation ahead of an oral examination. But it is the associated concept of the "hotwash", the post-match analysis of identifying improvements, that is most relevant. So after some high-profile hearings of late, what is the select committee "hotwash"?

- Know the answers to questions. It seems obvious, but you would be surprised. You can offer to write to the committee with the answer you don't have, but only once. Do it many times and be prepared to be presented as either shifty or incompetent.

- Prepare for the "price of milk" question, which is intended to demonstrate how out of touch you are.

- Don't wing it. The hearing itself presents an opportunity to put your points on the record. The chances of an opening statement are slight, but use the first phase of the hearing to get your point of view across, before most people have drifted off.

- Do your research. MPs will put the national interest first, but there may well be a local or constituency angle. Research it, know it and prepare for it.

- Remember who is doing the jokes - and it's not you. You are Teller to their Penn, Ernie to their Eric. You serve 'em up; they deliver the punchlines.

- Don't prepare for a linear examination. It's not the Today programme. The select committee can jump from topic to topic, in a seemingly free-form jazz kind of way.

- Have a rabbit up your sleeve. The big clashes are most often foreshadowed by intense media speculation. New information, albeit to substantiate a written point, can make the difference between conforming to the prevailing press narrative or delivering a game-changing intervention.

The media attention that select committees now generate is greater and more reputationally challenging. But it represents an opportunity to tell your side of the story, as long as you stick to the most important rule of comms - tell the truth.

Ed Williams is Edelman's UK CEO and ex-director of comms at the BBC

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