Blessed with Parliamentary privilege as they are, these committees are powerful – hence why select committee training is a mainstay of corporate comms agencies.
The fundamental message to clients is always ‘train hard, fight easy’. Understanding your audience is key, as is showing respect to the chair, even if they are giving you a hard time. Second guessing the questions gives you time to formulate responses and get on top of the facts before you enter the lion’s den.
Play it smart, appear erudite and answer questions directly, and you get to walk away emboldened with a ‘thank you’ from the chair, and your image intact. Get it wrong, and reputations unravel in short order.
Alan Yentob and Camila Batmanghelidjh left yesterday’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee hearing into the Kids Company fiasco ashen-faced; the latter had happened, and they now have the indignity of becoming the PR industry’s newest case study of ‘how not to do a select committee hearing’.
It was clear Batmanghelidjh didn’t understand her role in the proceedings and why the committee was asking these awkward questions; it was not a witch-hunt but was seeking to find out where taxpayers’ money had gone and why questions were not raised earlier.
Yentob intervened when the going got tough, but Batmanghelidjh felt the best course of action was to hit back with rhetorical questions and confused answers, resting largely on the good that the organisation was doing for children, and political support she had always (previously) received.
She even set about picking a fight with the committee’s formidable chair Bernard Jenkin; her question to Jenkin "I'd like to ask you on what basis you think Kids Company has failed", met by the MP’s deadpan response "It went bust", was social media’s highlight of the session.
I cannot remember a witness being told to "stop talking" and "stop interrupting" on as many occasions as she was – all of which made it abundantly clear how hard it must have been for Yentob and the other Kids Company trustees to work with her.
Such tactics brought derision to the faces of the committee – even good cop Cheryl Gillan MP rolled her eyes – and this ultimately sealed Batmanghelidjh’s fate. Yet this could have been avoided had she kept to the script and used the tips and tactics she would have undoubtedly been taught.
Meanwhile Yentob, as a seasoned pro, batted a few questions back and stayed calm for the majority of the hearing, but he was foolhardy in making light of whether his role as chairman of Kids Company could call into question his highly paid job as creative director of the BBC.
These were questions most people could have guessed would come a month ago, yet Yentob gave the impression of a man making it up on the hoof. A practised, coherent answer would have set a more compassionate tone to the reports that followed.
On the positive side, it was the best television Yentob has produced for years.
James Tyrrell is owner and deputy MD of Insight Consulting Group