We don't know whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a public relations branch, but it's already clear in the developing "nonprofits scrutiny" storm that it could have used effective counsel in public and media affairs. Was there a chance that figuring out where a new form of political expression — the tea-party movement — fit into the thorny realm of tax-related activity could be challenging? Of course there was. But was leaving that likelihood to bureaucratic drift, even as congressmen began asking questions about it, appropriate? Of course it wasn't.
Partway through a Wall Street Journal story on Lois Lerner, the IRS official who inadvertently triggered the tea-party storm last week, is the note that the IRS "is not a disclosure culture." While that's true, and needs to be with respect to individual taxpayers, any governmental agency has to be continually mindful of how it's coming across to its broader publics — whether in an understandable, accountable manner, or stiffly. A standoffish style means trouble, as any effective PR person could have advised the IRS.
Were IRS staffers "targeting right-wing groups," as much of the media has it, or taking their time trying to clarify new channels of political expression? The distinction is clearly important, but it's likely to get lost now with all the spotlights swirling around.
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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