Lois Lerner, the division head at the center of the unfolding Internal Revenue Service controversy, this week exercised her Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify before the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the tax agency's targeting of conservative groups leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Lerner did, however, give brief remarks before the committee stating her innocence.
During her abbreviated appearance, Lerner was quoted in numerous media outlets as saying: "Members of Congress have accused me of providing false information. I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this committee."
So, what's the problem with Lerner's self-defense?
Poorly chosen phrases and words riddle her statement: “accused;” “providing false information;” “not done anything wrong;” “not broken any laws;” “not violated IRS rules and regulations;” and, my favorite, “not provided false information to this committee.” In short, Lerner committed an unforced error – repeatedly. She perpetuated negative claims – or buzz words – that her adversaries would use to describe her actions, and in doing so she unintentionally reinforced the damaging impressions she hoped to mitigate.
The media, for its part, reported just the facts. The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, CBS News, and MSNBC, among countless others, generated headlines that included Lerner's, “I have done nothing wrong” wording, while The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and still more preferred her, “I have not broken any laws” defense.
Lerner's mistake is surely symptomatic of a larger problem, beyond the very misfortune of being at the center of this hubbub. That is, Lerner is allowing her lawyer(s) to dictate her public relations strategy and messaging. Many lawyers are capable of providing useful PR advice, to be sure, but unfortunate legalese most frequently rears its risk-averse head and trumps sound PR counsel when crises arise – and that is likely what happened here in the days leading up to Lerner's appearance on Capitol Hill.
What should Lerner have said?
Something along these lines would have been more helpful (not to be confused with “less damaging”): “I want to make a couple of things clear: Firstly, I pride myself on my personal ethics and have acted in accordance with all laws and my employer's rules and regulations. Secondly, I am an honest person. The information I provided to this committee has always been truthful, to the best of my knowledge.” That last clause – “to the best of my knowledge” – gives us room to maneuver if the facts change and it keeps the lawyers in the room happy.
If nothing else, leaders of any business or organization in crisis can learn two important lessons from Lerner's experience: 1) word choice matters; and consequently, 2) it is critical your legal counsel work closely with your PR counsel in drafting consequential statements.
Matt Burns is MD and US Southwest market leader for Burson-Marsteller.