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“Mistakes were made”
16 May 2013

“Mistakes were made”

They sure were. Those famous unnamed mistakes, made by unidentified parties, have cost at least one person his job – and maybe more. This isn’t a commentary on the behavior of the IRS staff or its policies, or of the administration. The book isn’t closed on that yet. But, just a few days after the news broke, there are a few take-aways that are useful to remember when responding to your own crisis.

Your high school English teacher probably hounded you to stop using the passive voice. It’s bad form and it’s bad grammar. Passive statements are a terrible way to respond to a crisis. Politicians love the “mistakes were made” phrase. Heck, there’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it.

So when the news headlines and broadcast stories all led with the IRS chief stating “mistakes were made” over giving greater scrutiny to tea party organizations, I was pretty surprised. Really? In 2013, these mistakes are still being made?

Monday’s op ed piece in the USA Today by the now-former IRS chief Steven Miller at least tried to start strong, with a watered-down admission that they knew they messed up: “We should have done a better job.” The entire piece was likely poured over by the communications professionals at the IRS. Most certainly, it was relentlessly picked apart by the agency’s corporation counsel.

The lawyers seem to have gotten the best of us. Rather than allowing the organization to own what went wrong – to truly say they made mistakes – they hedged and went passive.

We have yet to see the complete fallout from this matter and it’s far too premature to write a post-mortem on the PR efforts.  When something goes horribly wrong with your company, the best thing you can do is own it and try to do better – and in this case, respond with a strong, active statement that doesn’t include the passive voice in it – anywhere. Remember, any part of your crisis response statement may be plucked out and used, possibly even out of context. By Kate Venne

Need help navigating a crisis? Is your current crisis communication plan out of date or inadequate? Capstone National Partners’ PR team can help. Call me today. 414-727-2933.

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