Thursday, June 19, 2008, 3:08 PM

Washington is getting anxious, Part I

Wall Street has entered the crosshairs of congressional leaders who are nervous about voters paying $4 per gallon of gas in an election year. Congress held hearings this week on the impact of oil contract trades on gas prices and we can expect more intricately-staged hearings at which financial institutions testify before a bank of TV cameras and impatient lawmakers. Congress recently ran oil company executives through the same gauntlet.

Wall Street executives aren't the only ones who should take this example to heart. Local town hall gatherings, shareholder meetings, or regulatory hearings all impact public opinion. Companies must recognize the inherent perils and opportunities that come with appearing before such gatherings. We regularly advise clients who testify before Congress or other regulatory bodies at the local, state, and national level. Every scenario requires its own strategy, but there are a few actions companies can consider taking before such events to influence public opinion.

For instance, companies can employ an advertising or public relations campaign prior to the event to soften their critics' arguments. Further, a pre-emptive, significant announcement prior to the hearing can alter the tenor of media coverage and public commentary, put your critics on the defensive, and give your sympathizers at the hearing more to work with.

Most importantly, those who appear before such hearings should appreciate the many nuances, opportunities, and pitfalls that accompany highly-publicized events. Womble Carlyle has trained clients to navigate interviews with national news networks and to conduct "Q & A" meetings with hostile members of the public. Those who appear poised and in command of the facts generally succeed. Those who appear flustered, impatient, or indifferent to the concerns of the public generally do not.

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