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Lesson from the IRS media call: Better come prepared

May 13, 2013

irs_610x413Few stories light a fire under journalists more than allegations of abuse by powerful government or corporate interests.  Even if they don’t always get the facts right, the press takes its role as arbiters of truth in a democracy extremely serious.

So if your organization is accused of abusing ordinary citizens, you better come prepared for sharp questions from the press. The latest example of how not to prepare for tough media questions is the Internal Revenue Service, which is under fire for allegedly targeting certain non-profits for extra scrutiny based on their political beliefs.

Click here to read how poorly the IRS handled media questions.  The disaster can be best summed up by these mistakes:

1. Conflicting answers.  The IRS provided different answers to the same question. Your responsibility as communications professionals is to ensure your organization repeats its message relentlessly – no matter how many times you’re asked the same question. That doesn’t mean being defensive or withholding vital information. In fact, transparency can often buy an organization goodwill in a crisis. It simply means determining the right message before you speak with the press and sticking with it.

2. Off-the-cuff remarks during a serious media interview. Rest assured, the IRS’ talking points did not include the devastating phrase, “I’m not good at math.” But once the agency’s spokeswomen uttered the ironic phrase it was bound to undercut the agency’s desired message.  We can only imagine the spokeswoman was appealing for benefit of the doubt from the press, but it’s a searing reminder to resist attempts at humor when talking to the press about serious subjects.

3. Absence of any evidence. Again, transparency can often by an organization time and goodwill in a crisis. But the IRS offered no evidence to back up their assertion that their targeting of certain groups was not partisan. The press isn’t paid to give your organization the benefit of the doubt; they are paid to find the truth, preferably backed up with hard evidence. Until you provide evidence, don’t expect the benefit of the doubt.

We did not attend the IRS’ call with reporters nor have we read a complete transcript. We try to resist making sweeping judgments without all the facts. But the IRS’ public statements smack of an agency that did not appreciate the ramifications of undisciplined, uninformed media relations. If you find yourself under similar scrutiny, you better come prepared.

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