Yes, the Internal Revenue Service has managed to pull off the impossible: a public relations implosion for the mind-blowing cost of $.04.
Some background: The IRS sent two representatives to Harv’s Metro Car Wash in Sacramento to collect an overdue tax bill for $202.31 from the business. The only thing is, the initial amount owed was $.04, which eventually ballooned due to late fees and penalties.
The IRS ranked near-bottom for federal agencies in a public opinion poll last year. Incidents like this certainly won’t reverse that trend. Let’s count some of the key factors behind this IRS PR disaster, ready-made for starved news outlets to exploit:
• Sheer absurdity. Which number do you think the media will latch on to, $.04 or the full bill? Search online and just look at how many headlines cite four pennies.
• Showing up in person. Did the IRS really need to dispatch two agents to collect this bill? It’s also doubtful they were as charming as the groovers above. The irony is that the time and money spent in using such resources likely outweighed the bill itself. Why not just keep mailing a bill to the business?
• David v. Goliath. The current national mood is so anti-establishment/big-bad-guv’mint against “the little guy” that an entire right-leaning political movement has awakened as a result. What better way to illustrate this sentiment than to have a despised federal agency go after a helpless little car wash. Incidents like this also have strong appeal to local, folksy interests. Just read the column in the local paper.
• No IRS response. Talk about missed opportunity. In fact, when asked about it the IRS declined to respond, citing privacy and disclosure laws. That still doesn’t mean that the agency can’t say anything in support of its tax collection practices. Harv’s Metro Car Wash is light-years ahead of the IRS on this one, gladly speaking to any and all reporters and even using small business marketing tactics for a four-cent car wash promotion – now that is how you publicize!
The IRS should have had at least a canned response of some sort, offered by someone who’s had media training and who could help the agency appear like it has somewhat sensible priorities. Unfortunately, unlike paying taxes, the agency can’t ask the media for an extension to comment on this one.