File this one away as one of the most ill-advised comments ever by a government spokesperson. Lois Lerner, a senior Internal Revenue Service official was on a conference call this afternoon briefing reporters on a brewing crisis.
The IRS is admitting (after having denied it for some time) that some of their personnel inappropriately used their positions to target some conservative organizations.
When trying to explain some statistics in relation to the matter Ms Lerner, a ranking IRS official, confessed “I’m not good at math.” That’s like the Surgeon General admitting that she can’t stand the sight of blood.
The Washington Post reports that those auditing the conference call found other anomalies too.
In addition to being bad at math, Lerner is apparently no great shakes at media relations either. The Post cites numerous examples of Lerner not having her facts together before meeting the media.
When your organization has screwed up — it is important not only to quickly admit it and get your facts straight — but also to avoid giving the media the impression that you have something to hide. Ms. Lerner tried to bail out of the conference call after less than half an hour of questioning. Reporters objected and she eventually stayed on line for another 20 minutes before exiting in part, she said, because the questions were getting repetitive. That is a good sign that you have failed to adequately answer them.
The Q&A interview is a favorite of lazy print reporters. Instead of interviewing someone and writing a story, they just ask a bunch of questions, transcribe the answers and they’re done.
It is not quite so easy for the person being interviewed. Why?
Because you can’t count on someone editing out your dumb, boring or inarticulate responses.
Of course, you should never give dumb, boring or inarticulate responses in any interview — but in the Q&A there is no safety net. Example?
The Washington Post today runs a lengthy “conversation” with IRS official Stephen Whitlock, whose job it is to field tips from citizens who want to rat out others for not paying their taxes.
If the tipster helps the government capture new revenue, he or she (supposedly) gets a financial reward.
Not hard for a reporter to think up a dozen questions about that. But let’s audit how the interviewee did in responding.
Whitlock provides a treasury of bad answers. Here are some excerpts (our comments are in red ink…in honor of the IRS)
Q. Can you share any general description of the most interesting tips you receive?
A. I really can’t. I can tell you that the best information, the best tips we get are from people who have typically got documentary evidence… (aw, c’mon Stephen — no fair withholding. Surely you can come up with some generic examples.)
Q. What can you say to potential whistleblowers to give them some realistic clue as to what’s in it for them financially?
A. Well, the flippant answer is don’t plan on paying next year’s mortgage payment….
(Note to Mr. Whitlock…don’t give flippant answers…and definitely don’t give answers which you yourself label as flippant.)
Q. What’s the shortest amount of time it would take you to collect such a recovery?
A. I haven’t got a clue. The normal life cycle on large cases is going to be somewhere in the range of three to five years if the taxpayer does not exercise some of their appeal rights. I saw a case that was submitted under the old law, that was, the original submission was in, like, 1991. It’s been in the system for 18, 19 years. That’s the extreme.
(In fact the current law on payments was passed in 2006 and not a single award has yet been made under the new provisions. Whitlock would have been better off saying…”It takes a while but it can be worth it for all concerned.”)
Q. What do you like most about your job?
A. It’s like a lot of jobs in the federal government: You have an opportunity to make a difference in important areas.
(Good answer Stephen…if you had just dropped that part about it being like all the other jobs)
Q. What would you like people to know about you besides your job responsibilities?
A. Not my home phone number.
Q. Best book you’ve read recently?
A. I’m reading a biography of Harry Truman that’s actually pretty good, talking about his first four years in office. I like to read history.
Q. What’s the title?
A. You know, I couldn’t tell you. I got it at a used book sale. (What, it was so used they ripped off the cover and title page?)
Clearly the IRS could use some tips…not just on delinquent taxpayers but also on how to handle the media. Should Mr. Whitlock or any other IRS agent read this — nothing personal, we pay our taxes — honest.