IRS Designs Web Site to Fashion a Less Taxing Image The strange thing is you actually believe Michael C. Moore when he tells you his job with the Internal Revenue Service is fun. Moore, a telecommunications specialist with the tax collection agency was one of the first permanent employees assigned to the agency's Web site, http://www.irs.gov. He was there when the site was considered simply an information dissemination vehicle. And he's proud of the state of the site: an educational, informational, attractive and relatively lighthearted outlet. The site headline? "Faster than a speeding 1040-EZ..." As April 15 approaches, more taxpayers will go online for the latest forms and information. The site they see could change their impression of the IRS. "How could such a conservative organization have such an outlandish-looking Web site?," he asks, then answers, "We put it out there without asking permission from too many people." The site has a colorful 1950s tabloid newspaper style. Short stories, including a human interest piece, greet visitors to the "Digital Daily" cover page. For February, it was "Siblings Score Science Scholarship, Parents Get Extra Credit." Underneath a vivid picture of two cute kids, the site shares a happy story that dovetails into answers for tax-related question, in this case, about the child tax credits. The New IRS Take "You have to do a double-take to make sure you're at the IRS site," says Greg Young, director of interactive publicity and promotions for Irvine, Calif.-based electronic media communications. The lesson is simple: just because your company or client might be a touch on the, um, stodgy side, or if its image is slightly tarnished, there's no reason to reinforce that perception online. The Internet provides a place to essentially start over. "From a public relations standpoint, when you're a government agency, you're behind the 8-ball to start with in terms of public perception," Young says. "But the Web lets you create a different image for yourself, if you do it right. Two of the better governmental sites are the IRS and the Postal Service (http://www.usps.gov), and they're not really known for being popular with the public." The first step is to get the higher-ups on board, says Moore. "Some [senior management] were a little taken aback," says Webmaster Linda Wallace. "They were looking for the traditional look and feel," including snapshots of the agency's "fearless leader," the building, the flag and an organizational chart. "There were some people who thought the approach was wrong," says Moore, breaking into an audible smile, perhaps at the understatement. "We were very fortunate. When we started, our leadership recognized it was new technology, and we were embarking down a new road. They allowed us kind of a wide degree of latitude, not what you'd expect of an IRS employee." Even though they were working with a paltry staff and a budget of less than $200,000 the first year, the Web developers had to make sure they were putting out their very best product online - this isn't a place to screw around with test versions. If the IRS site didn't get good feedback in the early going, the bosses would have pulled the plug without question, Moore says. "It was an incredibly positive response. We get thousands of calls and e-mails from all over the world saying how much they like it," Wallace says. In fact, Wallace says she has developed a pen pal relationship with some sailors on an aircraft carrier who did the bulk of their taxes online and, consequently, filed on time for the first time. They were so pleased to get their refunds earlier, they felt a need to send in a thank you e-mail. Generally, the information is presented in bits designed to liven things up. "The product - tax information - is not the most exciting topic in the world, but we knew we were going to get a lot of business because everyone has to do taxes," Moore says. "We knew we had to keep it entertaining and light." The approach worked. Now the site is a pet project of members of the highest echelon of the IRS and it has an annual budget of more than $2 million, the vast majority of which goes for bandwidth considerations, Wallace says. Not insignificantly, all the information is written by representatives of the IRS. By putting it in a newspaper format, the information can put a subtle twist on news in your favor. "It looks like a complete news story, but there's nothing negative," Young says. "You can create your own daily good news." Any company dealing with a daily barrage of less-than-sparkling coverage could similarly take advantage of such an approach. "A lot of times in times of crisis there are all kinds of stories about what you did wrong," Young says. "You aren't able to get your word out. But by putting up your own site, you can create a relatively calm, good-news world." It's fortunate that companies have not abused the idea. "Obviously you can't put anything absurd up, because then you ruin the effect and your credibility," he says. "But there's no harm in putting up the positive side that the media might be overlooking.... With the IRS site, you can look at all the wonderful things the IRS has done to make your life better." (Michael Moore and Linda Wallace, 202/622-4000; Greg Young, 949/852-6655.) It will be effective for the IRS because, especially this time of year, the public needs the site. One day in early February, for example, the site received 14 million hits. That's 14 million chances to make a good impression.
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