The board of HM Revenue and Customs discussed a “PR offensive” in December 2007 to counter negative publicity weeks after two CDs went missing containing details on 25 million people, we’ve learned.
The board of HMRC decided against the PR offensive – but the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vincent Cable has told Computer Weekly that the discussion of such an initiative at board level showed that HMRC in December last year “simply did not understand the depths of the problem” of the loss of personal data on the missing CDs.
Last week, on 25 June 2008, Dave Hartnett, Acting Chairman of HMRC, said in a letter to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, that the loss of Child Benefit data was the “most serious incident in the department’s history and damaged HMRC’s reputation for handling our customers’ data”.
But on 10 December, three weeks after the Chancellor Alistair Darling revealed the loss of the two Child Benefit CDs, the board of HMRC agreed internally – at a closed meeting – that “many people will feel frustrated by the impact of the media coverage is having on HMRC’s reputation”. The Board considered the “recent media coverage and its impact on staff” but decided “not to pursue an offensive media strategy at present”.
Vincent Cable told us that the discussion by HMRC’s board of a PR offensive indicated that it was “obsessed by their image rather than the reality”. He added: “There are obviously deep problems of morale and organisation and yet they appear to have been obsessed with public relations which is not at all to their credit.”
An HMRC spokeswoman said:
“With hindsight ‘offensive’ isn’t the best word to use. [The] Press Office would say ‘proactive’ media strategy – in other words we decided not to promote what was going well at a time when a high-profile negative story was running.”
In 2005 HMRC tried to counter negative publicity with a positive statement on its website, after Computer Weekly – and subsequently the national news media – reported a public speech by the then chief information officer Steve Lamey who said that 30 million letters went to the wrong address each year and his “biggest challenge” was correcting “poor quality data”.
It’s telling that the board of HMRC considered even fleetingly a PR “offensive” after the most serious incident in its history. We have seen HMRC trying to counter – sometimes by Panglossian statements on its website – nearly every major article we have published about the department that has been followed up by the national media.
The board should be motivated by a desire to do its best for its captive customers, mainly employers and taxpayers, rather than trying to manipulate public perceptions about HMRC. Its PR image is not relevant. People only really care that its operations run as smoothly and cheaply as possible, without causing unnecessary irritation, without wasting their time, and without losing their personal details.
That said, Steve Lamey has for some years been HMRC’s strongest single asset – but one star doesn’t make a football team.
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