The IRS PR Problem

It hasn’t been a good few months for the Internal Revenue Service.  The investigation about whether the IRS became politicized and improperly targeted conservative groups has continued and has gathered steam as new revelations have come to light.

A key official has taken the Fifth Amendment.  After months of efforts by lawmakers to get her emails, and a promise by the new head of the IRS that the emails would be produced, IRS officials belatedly announced that a number of the emails were lost in a computer crash and buried the news in the middle of a long letter.  Then it was announced that the computers of other IRS officials involved in the probe had also crashed.  Then the IRS disclosed that it had not tried to restore the emails from back-up tapes, and that the back-up tapes that would have stored the emails had been recycled.

Most recently the head of the IRS, John Koskinen, has come in for tough questioning at congressional hearings on Friday and Monday night.  How could he have testified in March that the emails would be produced without raising the issue of the computer crashes and lack of back-up tapes, when the IRS knew of those matters by that time?  Why has it taken the IRS so long to disclose the problems?  Why does the IRS seem to be trying to bury the bad news, rather than simply admitting to it?  The aggressiveness of the questioning caused Democrats on the panel to rise to the defense of Koskinen.  It’s got to be uncomfortable for Democrats to be vigorously defending the IRS — hardly a beloved agency — especially when the IRS’ own actions have created the problems.

It’s another example of the time-honored public relations lesson.  PR pros always tell anyone who is dealing with bad news to get ahead of the story — divulge all the bad news at once, be forthcoming about what happened, and apologize and move on.  The IRS didn’t learn that lesson.  Instead, it has clearly hoped that the story would just go away and that it could bury the bad news in places where no one would notice it, and even now Koskinen refuses to apologize.  As a result, the IRS’ credibility has been taken a significant hit as the bad news has frittered out in dribs and drabs.  The approach has kept the story on the front pages of the news, and people who weren’t paying much attention to the story at the outset now are wondering whether the IRS’ apparent stonewalling is actually hiding something harmful.

I think most people would agree that an IRS that targets people or groups for audits and special treatment because of their political views is a bad thing.  The IRS’ botched handling of the matter seems to be turning a simple investigation into a burgeoning scandal.  It’s a useful reminder of a basic PR lesson — one the IRS has yet to learn.

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Drip, Drip, Drip

Any public relations professional worth her salt will tell you: when you are dealing with an unfavorable news story — one that you know is going to have a negative impact — the best approach is to get ahead of the story, get all of the information out, and at least avoid the possibility that the story becomes a running, multi-day issue.  Lance the boil, drain the pus, and move on.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign must not employ a public relations person.  If it does, she isn’t very good at her job — because the story of Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestry has become a never-ending story in Warren’s campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.  Every day, seemingly, there is some new revelation that puts Warren on the defensive, interferes with her intended “message,” and distracts from the issues she thinks are important.

On Wednesday, for example, Warren acknowledged for the first time that two law schools that identified her as Native American did so because she identified herself as such, based on her understanding of “family lore.”  Her admission is just the latest in a series of statements about the issue — some of which arguably are inconsistent — that have just encouraged the press to dig ever deeper into the history of Warren’s employment, whether she identified herself as Native American, and whether there is any proof of actual Cherokee ancestry in her family tree.

I don’t think a candidate’s race, or self-reported minority status, has anything to do with fitness to serve as a U.S. Senator.  On the other hand, I think a candidate’s truthfulness, credibility, and ability to deal with a crisis are relevant — and Warren seems to be falling short in all of those categories.  The Native American story has  dominated the headlines for a month now, and for that Warren has only herself to blame.  Her statements and partial disclosures have a whiff of embarrassed shiftiness about them that have made a minor issue into a major one and, at the same time, made her look evasive and inept.  Although her race shouldn’t affect a voter’s decision about her, her apparent inability to give a satisfactory explanation of her actions reasonably could.