Sound substantive. Avoid substance.

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Memo to Rex Tillerson: How to Get Yourself Confirmed

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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Dear Rex,

Watch out! The Republicans who run the U.S. Senate want to find a way to confirm your nomination to be secretary of state, but they won’t be able to do it without your help.

The way you answer their questions in confirmation hearings next week, and the way you deal with hostile Democrats, will have a huge impact. You’ll need to develop a real rapport, not only to get the job but also so that you’ll later be able to defend your actions in office and get funding for State Department initiatives. And don’t forget that your testimony will send signals about U.S. policy to global markets and foreign nations.

It won’t be pretty. First you’ll need to win over a majority of the 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and many of them are already worried about your ties to Russia and the record of your company, Exxon Mobil, on climate change. Republican committee member Marco Rubio, for example, said he has “serious concerns” about you.

When I worked in the Obama administration, I helped prepare Treasury officials for Senate confirmation and congressional testimony. I learned that, in confirmation hearings, the trick is to show that you’re knowledgeable without making promises. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for you:

Keep your options open. Avoid policy commitments. You may now want the U.S. to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, but you’ll need to be able to change your mind and the White House may not agree with your ideas. It’s surprisingly easy to trip over this low bar. That’s what happened to former Secretary of State Colin Powell when he committed to continuing the Clinton administration’s negotiations with North Korea. Later, when the George W. Bush White House disagreed with the plan, Powell had to embarrass himself by publicly declaring, “I got a little too far forward on my skis.”

That’s why P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs and author of “Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States,” says “the normal strategy for any nominee is to say as little as possible.” When the questioning gets rough, Crowley wisely advises, “agree with the senators as to the significance of the issues they raise and promise to come back to them in greater detail once you’ve gone through policy review.”

Ben Chang, managing director of the global public-affairs firm Burson-Marsteller and former State Department senior adviser for strategic planning and crisis communications, says a good approach after giving such a response is to “pivot to process” and describe a time when you undertook a thorough policy review at Exxon and then implemented changes to be more effective.

Show you can play the part. While you want to be vague on commitments, its critical to show that you can talk about issues in depth to allay concerns about your lack of foreign policy experience. Demonstrating lack of knowledge on a major issue is the biggest risk to your confirmation.

Chang warns that it’s also essential to demonstrate that you know which policies the U.S. has pursued in the past. “If you’re going to talk about North Korea, for example, you have to know what the six-party talks are,” he says.

Crowley says the best ways to learn are to study the memos the State Department will provide for you and to take advantage of briefings the department will organize.

If you’re caught with a tough policy question you can’t answer, it’s better to punt than to gaffe! It's fine to tell a senator that you’ll follow up with a written answer that will later become part of the record.

Promise to play nice. Senators want influence. Assure them that you’re committed to working closely with them, returning to Capitol Hill to testify and being accessible to them so that you can solve the country’s challenges together.

Eat some crow. Inevitably, prominent people say things that come back to haunt them. You, for instance, once derided the effectiveness of sanctions. That’s a problem. Hagar Chemali, chief executive of Greenwich Media Strategies and former Treasury spokesperson for terrorism and financial intelligence, says sanctions have bipartisan support in Congress and are one of few tools you’ll have to punish rogue states. You’ll need to be ready with graceful ways to eat your words.

Here’s how to apply this strategy on some of the questions you’re likely to face:

Question: You accepted the Order of Friendship from President Vladimir Putin of Russia and as chief executive of Exxon you struck multi-billion dollar deals with his country. Republican Senator John McCain has said that “anybody who’s a friend of Vladimir Putin must disregard the fact that Vladimir Putin is a murderer, a thug, a KGB agent.” How can you be friends with Putin?

Answer: I don’t condone all of Putin’s actions, but I do have a working relationship with him. As CEO of Exxon, I have successfully negotiated deals with Russia that were in the best interests of my company. As secretary of state, I’d use my negotiating skills and contacts within the Russian government to strike deals that are in the best interests of the American people.

Q: President-elect Donald Trump said the idea that Russia intervened to help him win the election is “ridiculous.” But the intelligence community has concluded Russia did it and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says 99 senators agree. As secretary of state, would you stand up to President Trump and punish Russia?

A: As secretary of state I would trust and rely on the briefings I receive from our country’s intelligence community. If a foreign government attempts to hack domestic citizens or infrastructure, we will respond. And if I believe that the president is wrong about any issue, then it will be my duty to tell him so.

Q: You don’t have any previous foreign policy experience. What makes you qualified to serve as chief foreign relations adviser to a president who has no foreign policy experience?

A: In my four decades at Exxon, I have navigated geopolitics to successfully do business in some of the most complicated parts of the world, including the Middle East and Russia. I know how to negotiate successful deals, make tough decisions and run a complex organization. Like any secretary of state, I’d rely on briefings and intelligence from foreign-service issue experts when making decisions.

Q: The Rockefeller family has accused Exxon of a decades-long conspiracy to cover up the science of climate change, and Secretary of State John Kerry has compared Exxon to big tobacco. Have you been covering up what Exxon knows about climate change? Oh, and Exxon supported the Paris climate accord, while Trump opposed it. Do you disagree with the president-elect?

A: I’ve said publicly that the threat of climate change is real. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to discuss this issue with the president-elect but, if confirmed, I look forward to having this conversation with him and with members of Congress to determine the best strategy for our nation.

Q: As CEO of Exxon, you questioned the effectiveness of sanctions, which are a primary tool the U.S. government uses to punish foreign states. Will you support sanctions against Russia for its interference in the U.S. election, invasion of Ukraine and support of Bashar al-Assad's bloody dictatorship in Syria?

A: I understand that sanctions are just one piece of a broader policy strategy and it takes time for sanctions to help achieve a larger policy goal. But they are an important tool for isolating and pressuring countries that flout international law, and as secretary of state I would be committed to working with my Treasury counterpart to implement them effectively.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kara Alaimo at kara.s.alaimo@hofstra.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net