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Austin plane crash throws spotlight on federal crisis comms

Feb 22, 2010

By Vanessa Horwell

IRS, FBI convey a sober tone and solid information in a post-9/11, instant-media world

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Remember that saying from childhood? Those words filled my ears as I read the ramblings of Joseph Stack—a deranged and disillusioned man who gave up on life Thursday.

Disgruntled and dismayed by the unfair hand that life and the IRS had dealt him, his attack on an Austin IRS facility in a small airplane offers an unusual glimpse into the efficacy of governmental crisis communication in an age of instant information and news gratification.

Let’s look at the crisis itself: News outlets immediately reported that nearly 200 IRS employees worked at that particular building. Any act involving an airplane, a building and a crash profoundly echoes the Sept. 11 attacks, adding a dimension of fear and fascination to the situation.

Add to the mix the relatively bizarre nature of the event—the attacker left behind a suicide blog (so 2010) documenting his list of troubles with the IRS, compete with Shakespearean allusions—and you have a news item that presents a barely manageable crisis communications incident ready to spiral out of control and spread like wildfire among the tweetoblogosphere.

That is precisely why the IRS’s cool and controlled statement, released a few hours after the incident, worked exactly as it was intended:

We can confirm a small plane hit a building in Austin, Texas, that includes IRS offices in Echelon Building I that houses about 190 IRS employees. We are still in process accounting for all employees and will update as information is available.

Later, a statement from IRS commissioner Doug Shulman was posted on irs.gov:

Like most Americans, I am shocked by the tragic events that took place in Austin this morning. This incident is of deep concern to me. We are working with law-enforcement agencies to fully investigate the events that led up to this plane crash.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the dedicated employees of the IRS who work in the Austin building. We will immediately begin doing whatever we can to help them during this difficult time.

While this appears to be an isolated incident, the safety of our employees is my highest priority. We will continue to do whatever is needed to ensure our employees are safe.

The response tamped down the story before it could snowball. The IRS, not an organization we expect to act nimbly, effectively preempted a PR nightmare with a quick and carefully crafted response. The statement focused on the efforts to account for all personnel, and it allayed suspicions that the act might be the work of a terrorist group.

It confirmed the facts without mentioning the perpetrator, promising additional information as was warranted.

The result: The IRS is seen as concerned about its employees and having offered a measured acknowledgement about an isolated incident.  Online and traditional media channels were left to fill in the blanks about the pilot and his motives.

Other governmental agencies helped the IRS maintain this control: The FBI reiterated that there was no indication of terrorism, and it had the suicide blog post taken offline for a period, while the Department of Homeland Security declared the matter a criminal investigation.

That initial response set the tone for the news cycle to follow. Without an immediate response, the blogosphere and Twitterverse could have run in any direction with the story. (Tiger, Toyota anyone?)

The perpetrator might have been painted sympathetically or depicted as a martyr by tax-haters. Rumors about the involvement of anti-American interests might have indeed engendered terror, with escalating panic and silliness. And the IRS could have been portrayed as a soulless institution with concern only for the tax record and not for the human cost of the tragedy.

None of these, however, has happened.

The IRS demonstrated very clearly yesterday why immediacy is vital in today’s news cycle. The public and media have become an unforgiving bunch, ready to pounce on any story and spread it as fast as they can, not always armed with all the facts or the full picture. Because of that, companies must be prepared with their message, their story and their facts ready to manage the aftermath—a lot like sticks and stones and no broken bones.

Of course, the Left and the Right have been picking the story apart, looking for narratives to fit in somewhere. But they always do.

The IRS responded as you might expect: dispassionately, punctually, and accurately.

It was the right response, and it did the job.

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the US, UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at vanessa@thinkinkpr.com.

http://tinyurl.com/yavmqha

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