When Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., testifies Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about his company's massive recall efforts, he'll likely learn a lesson many other powerful corporate executives have figured out the hard way.
The televised hearing is theater, and the CEO is not the hero.
"The purpose of these hearings is to grill these people, to use them, essentially, as props to make a policy or political point. You are there to be a fish in a barrel," said Jack Quinn, who as White House counsel for President Bill Clinton testified before Congress and now advises corporate clients.
His firm, Quinn Gillespie and Associates, is one of several with expertise in preparing congressional witnesses, evidence of the prevailing wisdom that a good hearing on Capitol Hill isn't too bad -- but a bad hearing can haunt a company for years.
Along with lawyers and lobbyists, these consultants dispense advice both mundane (don't drink too much water or you may have to excuse yourself) and essential (don't expose yourself to legal liability).
In conference rooms around Washington, chief executives who are far more accustomed to doing the grilling are grilled in mock hearings before their testimony. Their advisers whisper such words as "humility" and "restraint" and repeat something executives often don't like to hear.
"You're going to get hurt. But if you only get hurt a little, you're OK," said Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, whose clients have included Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair and Enron Corp. "You can't go in and win."
But you can lose, experts say. The cautionary tales loom large. In 1994, seven executives of the tobacco industry repeated one after the other that nicotine wasn't addictive, a statement that seemed out of sync with science and public sentiment. Last year, auto executives coming to Washington in search of a financial lifeline arrived via private jet. The image overshadowed nearly all other statements made in the hearing. Said Quinn: "You want to be someone who gets it."
UNFAIR TREATMENT, DEALERS SAY
Toyota dealers are complaining that the automaker is being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. Some say it's because the government has invested billions in two competitors, General Motors and Chrysler.
More than 150 Toyota dealers are in Washington to lobby lawmakers on behalf of Toyota. Paul Atkinson, a Houston-area Toyota dealer, got loud applause when he said, "How did we suddenly overnight become the villain?"
Harman recuses herself from probe
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is stepping aside from the panel's investigation of Toyota's recall because of financial connections to the automaker. Her husband founded an audio equipment company, Harman International, which supplies Toyota. In addition, the Harmans have held stock in the Japanese automaker, including at least $115,000 worth in 2008, the year covered by her latest financial disclosure report.
PRIUS, LEXUS STILL TOP RANKINGS
Toyota's Prius retained its title as Consumer Reports magazine's top pick for environmentally friendly vehicles two weeks after the automaker recalled 437,000 hybrids to fix a brake software flaw.
The carmaker's $76,572 Lexus LS460L was named best overall vehicle among more than 280 autos tested, the publication said. The Prius was ranked best "green" car for the seventh straight year.
Consumer Reports also named General Motors's Chevrolet Traverse as the best sport-utility vehicle and GM's Silverado as the top pickup. Nissan also had two recommended models, the Altima sedan and Infiniti G37 sports car.