The Obama administration continues to do itself no favors in the controversy involving the Internal Revenue Service. The scandal has already prompted the resignation of Acting IRS Chief Steven Miller and spawned both Congressional hearings and a Justice Department criminal inquiry.
In this week’s installment, administration officials offered contradictory information about when they found out the IRS was targeting politically conservative groups for additional scrutiny. On Sunday, a White House representative told the Sunday talk shows the issue hit the presidential radar the previous week. A day later, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed that several senior aides, including President Obama’s chief of staff and a senior White House attorney, knew about the matter more than a month ago, but chose not to tell the president. Certain senior U.S. Treasury officials knew about IRS activities last year. IRS official Lois Lerner shed no additional light in her testimony before Congress: she pleaded the Fifth Amendment, invoking her right against self-incrimination.
Fair or not, the progression of events has begun to draw comparisons to another political era: that of Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon. Prior to the Watergate scandal that ultimately swamped his presidency, Nixon wielded the IRS as a bludgeon against those on his “enemies list”. It was also during the congressional inquiry into Watergate that Senator Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, posed the now famous political question: What did the President know, and when did he know it? When it comes to the current scandal, the answer to that question seems far from clear.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the Obama administration. At best, the administration looks confused and inept; at worst, bullying and devious.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: The buck always stops at the top. A school of thought exists wherein keeping bad news from senior management is believed to provide protection from fallout. That’s the wrong approach. Whether president or CEO, an organization’s leader is always held accountable for its behavior. When things go awry, the best plan is to move quickly to apprise leadership, sort out the facts, take remedial action if necessary and be prepared to speak knowledgeably about the matter if needed. Anything less is asking for trouble.