Speak really slowly and stall when testifying before hostile lawmakers on Capitol Hill, a corporate executive once suggested. But that won’t be an easy task for former Equifax CEO Richard “Rick” Smith this week.
Starting today, Smith is slated to be on the hot seat in four different House and Senate hearings digging into Atlanta-based Equifax’s massive breach of sensitive data on 143 million — oops, now it’s more than 145 million — people.
Plenty of consumers are rightfully angry. So it’s likely to be ugly for Smith.
Politicians sometimes aren’t shy about jumping in when we fume at corporations that mess up or try our patience.
“Why do you hate the American people?” a lawmaker asked United Airlines’ chief in a hearing this year after the carrier had a paying passenger forcibly removed from a jet.
Or how about the time when CEOs of big automakers asked Congress for bailout money, but flew into town on private jets? “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in a high hat and tuxedo,” a congressman said.
Or when Wells Fargo’s then-CEO showed up to talk about how his employees opened up fake accounts without the knowledge of customers. Said one lawmaker, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Or when a smug former pharmaceutical boss smiled and pleaded the Fifth when asked about big price increases on a crucial drug.
I found the archived advice of another executive who had been through the political chipper and lived to lecture about it.
“Once you see the theater of it, the intimidation factor kind of goes away,” Doug Curling said during a videotaped talk a few years ago at the University of Georgia’s business school.
Curling was second in command at ChoicePoint, another Atlanta-based data giant that was supposed to be really secure but couldn’t keep a fraudster from snatching consumers’ sensitive information. Curling and ChoicePoint’s CEO, Derek Smith, both got called to woodshed at Capitol Hill. That was 12 years ago.
“You should work very, very hard to be non-confrontational and try to get out of there as quickly as you can,” Curling would later tell his UGA listeners.
Giving donations to elected officials “does not get you favors” or prevent abusive committee questions, he said, but it may help land one-on-one meetings with lawmakers the day before a hearing “to do a little warm-up with them and help them to understand your view.”
Curling said he got advice from experts who specialize in prepping executives for time before congressional panels. They worked with him for three days straight, practicing a barrage of potential questions.
One tip they gave him: never sit on either end of a hearing table. People in those positions get questioned more.
When Curling testified, each senator had only five minutes to ask questions and get answers.
“So use the filibuster rule,” Curling advised our future business leaders. “Don’t be in a hurry to talk. … Try to eat the clock for five minutes.”
You should also be respectful, helpful and direct, he said. And have a paper with prepared questions and answers, for times when it’s really important to stay on script.
In his particular hearing, Curling said many lawmakers left the room after the first few minutes, dipping back in only when it was their turn to ask questions. Seeing that helped erode the intimidation factor, he said.
Equifax’s Smith is in a bit of a different position. He “retired” recently after the company’s continued bungling following disclosure of the cyber breach. So it’s not like Smith can make meaningful promises that Equifax will do a better job of protecting our information in the future.
He can try to prevent any further shredding of his and Equifax’s tattered reputations.
That won’t be easy. Lawmakers from both parties may take swings.
“It has the potential to be a double pile on. I can’t imagine very many people defending this guy,” said William LaForge, a longtime D.C. lobbyist and former Senate staffer who literally wrote the book “Testifying Before Congress.”
Lawmakers will try to root out the facts of what happened. But some also will jump at the opportunity for a bit of “showmanship,” said LaForge, who is now the president of Delta State University in Mississippi.
“There will certainly be crowing politicians.”