Major Tom to Message Control

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Like many, I've been following the Obama administration's response to the IRS scandal. The response has seemed to be a mix of defense and pushing an Obi-Wan Kenobi message of, "These are not the droids you're looking for ..." The message has only protracted the coverage and led to overblown stories of "scandal." The Obama administration forgot to "control the message," a lesson that is equally vital for litigation, internal investigations, and corporate PR issues as it is for political missteps. The idea is understand the facts that are available, quickly figure out the bad facts, and go on the offensive with a message that is strong, consistent, and defensible in the future as more facts come to light (and shows a proper level of contrition if applicable).  Take the IRS issue. What the Obama administration knew was:

  1. The IRS investigated certain political groups.
  2. The IRS investigation was improper.
  3. The groups under investigation were some of the President's biggest enemies.
  4. The President did not authorize the investigation.

The President could have said something like this immediately:

"The targeting of my fellow American citizens by the IRS is unacceptable. We don't have all of the facts in yet, but neither I nor anyone in my administration requested, directed, condoned, or will accept this behavior. I want the names of anyone responsible on my desk in the next few days, and swift action will be taken."

More importantly, such a message sets the terms for the media coverage and opposition: a few days to dig into whether the Obama administration directed the IRS to target Tea Party groups, a few days to get the names of responsible parties, and a few days to see what "swift action" was being taken. The same concept applies for litigation. Get a hold of your facts quickly, go on the offense with a theme, and make sure the theme stays consistent even as more facts are learned. The "story cycle" will be longer in litigation but setting a theme early can help craft an efficient plan for motion practice and discovery.