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(Randy Quan)
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Renzetti’s School for Scandal helps CEOs talk like hard knocks Add to ...

The season for grilling is upon us. No, the other kind of grilling, where beleaguered business executives are trotted out before politicians and judicial inquiries to explain why our economic system seems to be run by P.T. Barnum.

I can’t imagine what a pain it is for the already overburdened CEO to appear before a parliamentary or congressional committee: He must answer the summons, take his hair shirt out of storage, begin practising his sincere face and decide what it is that he’s forgotten.

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Which is why I’m planning to establish Renzetti’s School for Scandal, a finishing establishment for time-pressed executives who want to learn the rules for winning their encounters with tinpot Torquemadas – I mean, well-meaning public servants determined to get at the truth. Some of the advice we’ll be discussing:

Don’t mention Champagne

The minute one Barclays trader offered another a bottle of Bollinger as a reward for allegedly fixing the interbank lending rate, France’s greatest drink was cheapened to the status of a crumpled wad of bills left on a bedside table. Watch Bob Diamond, the Barclays CEO who lost his job over the scandal, tell British MPs that he felt “physically sick” when he read the rate-fixing e-mails. Gentlemen, Champagne is out. You may drink water (from the tap) or beer (domestic, in cans.) If anyone offers you a cup of hemlock, say no. It is a trick.

Buy a thesaurus, and memorize the synonyms for “sorry”

Sadly, the word “sorry” has become so debased that even when repeated ceaselessly it does not necessarily convey contrition. Poor old Fred Goodwin (we will never refer to him as “Fred the Shred” in class) told British MPs “I could not be more sorry” that taxpayers had to bail out Royal Bank of Scotland, and they still took away his knighthood. “We let a lot of people down, and we are sorry for it,” Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, told a U.S. Senate banking committee recently. I’m sending you his performance to study: Even his hair looked penitent.

Learn to say “sorry” in the languages of peoples you may have offended, which means Urdu to Klingon. It’s also useful to know the phrase in Spanish, so that if your building cleaner confronts you and asks why she isn’t earning a living wage, as Mr. Dimon’s did, you can at least say, “lo siento” before fleeing into a waiting car. If you own a dog or horse, think about naming it Mea Culpa.

Don’t own a horse

Really, the optics are terrible. A dog is fine, as long as it’s from a shelter: if not, discard your purebred and get a mutt. Be seen walking it, especially in the rain, with a plastic bag in your hand. It’s crucial that you are known to have cleaned at least one mess before this.

Make an emotional appeal

Skeptics will say you have tiny wizened hearts like cocktail sausages left all night on the barbecue, but we know better, and we can prove it. Proudly confess your love of something. (It must not be something you own, have recently purchased, or have lent to anyone for a high rate of interest.) For the best examples, see Mr. Dimon’s impassioned speech to that congressional committee: “My highest interest, most important thing, is the United States of America.” Mr. Diamond was equally good: “I love Barclays,” he said, several times. (A repetition of three will be school standard; any more may come across as mania.) Rupert Murdoch’s declaration “I love newspapers” to the Leveson inquiry was hurt only by the fact that he seemed not to have read any of them. (Sincerity will be covered in a separate lecture, for a small supplementary fee.)

Avoid absolutes

They will come back to bite you on the bottom. “I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” said Rupert Murdoch, but he probably asked David Cameron to pass the salt when they were lunching on the Murdoch family yacht, and if there were other attempts to ask for, say, teensy regulatory concessions, well that’s a matter for the mogul and his maker. Or his accountant. Whoever’s handier.

Don’t give in to self-pity

If you must cry, cry alone, and station a minion at the door to ensure the press don’t see. Under no circumstance say you’re the victim of a “witch hunt,” as some pedant is likely to point out that those poor women were tortured to death and not deprived of a vacation in Bali, and that the thing about witch hunts is that the witches hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Ignore them. Image rehabilitation will be covered in the next module, “The Sums Will Come Out Tomorrow.” See you in class.

 

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