Marketing 101: How not to apologize for generating fraud out of thin air

No matter what damage it does, the Snyder administration excels at slapping a happy face on its disasters and moving right along to the next one. - Photo by Curt Guyette, Photomontage by Michael Jackman
Photo by Curt Guyette, Photomontage by Michael Jackman
No matter what damage it does, the Snyder administration excels at slapping a happy face on its disasters and moving right along to the next one.

Say what you will about the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, but it has a firm grasp on marketing.

Did the administration’s emergency managers poison you? That’s not a health crisis. It’s a “public relations crisis.”

Heavy-handed state intervention leave your school district dysfunctional and in debt? The state now offers you the chance for your school's ass to hang in the breeze for three more years while you try solving the problem yourself. It’s called the state’s new “partnership model.”

Has the state’s economy shafted you so bad you need to file for unemployment assistance? You’re not applying for unemployment. You’re entering the exciting domain of Michigan’s Talent Investment Agency! All of a sudden those images of dreary, Soviet-length lines disappear, and it’s like we’re getting our shot at the big time at the William Morris Agency!

What’s that you say? The state’s computerized system mishandled data so badly that hundreds of people had criminal fraud charges filed against them? Good news, Michigan. “Following the naming of a new leadership team by Gov. Rick Snyder, the Talent Investment Agency – Unemployment Insurance has completed a top-to-bottom review of operations, customer service standards and fraud determination cases.”

See? Being able to “control the message” means never having to say you’re sorry. Instead, the message goes happily burbling on for a dozen paragraphs describing all the great new stuff there is — including that last item about “fraud determination cases.”

It was so weird to read the message that we referred to Ryan Felton’s 2015 cover story on the issue to see if we had imagined all of those problems the state couldn't deal with until politicians and plaintiffs forced it to.

But it’s all there. People being charged with fraud because the state’s computerized fraud-detection system was running on autopilot. Law-abiding people living in fear of their wages being garnished or their federal income tax returns seized. People having to spend hours on the phone trying to connect with somebody who can help them. Innocent people losing access to legal advocates and having to foot their own legal bills. Plaintiffs finally having to sue the state to force reforms. People afraid to apply for the unemployment benefits they’ve paid into. It turns out you can cut costs and bring in savings when you scare people shitless by creating fraud out of thin air.

But it’s hard to detect those complaints amid all this happy language. There are six bullet points full of language that will make your eyes glaze over! Take this doozy:

Improved methods for residents using the agency’s computer system to quickly get benefits. Working with a consultant with expertise in improving operations, TIA-UI staff submitted a significant number of suggestions for system improvements, resulting in enhanced training, policy clarifications, and computer system changes.

In other words, “We fixed our fucked-up computer system so you don’t get charged with a felony crime by accident.”

Don’t miss this:

Better serving state residents by working closely with claimant advocacy groups, lawmakers, employers, and community partners for feedback. These efforts include a legislative workgroup led by state Rep. Joe Graves to address laws concerning identity theft and fraud penalties. TIA-UI is committed to listening and improving, and these conversations will continue.

Though it sounds like TIA-UI attended a weekend fun camp where it learned about fraud penalties and identity theft, it should say, “It was state representative Joe Graves who took most of the initiative, rightly blasting us for our ‘reckless fraud accusations’ and supporting a measure requiring us to dump our fucked-up computer system. In the end he had to practically force us to do the right thing.”

Or how about this?

Improved staff interaction with residents over the phone and online to better serve customers. This summer, TIA-UI contracted with a process-reengineering expert to identify best practices used in other government and private organizations. Development of a new system, including consolidating agency phone numbers to make it easier for customers to navigate, is ongoing.

In other words, “We have upgraded our phone capabilities. Now when you call, somebody actually picks up the phone, and can better forward your call to an actual human being who might actually be able to help you.” Great job, Talent Investment Agency: You’ve upgraded your phone capabilities to the level of Hudson’s Department Store in 1912.

Now, if you start to think that you’re crazy reading this kind of happy horseshit, you’re not alone. Shouldn't it offer more than a neutral statement that TIA's "approach moving forward is to focus on the problems and fix them, not to place blame or take credit"? Shouldn’t the overhaul of an agency that charged innocent people with felonies for doing nothing more than filing for unemployment acknowledge some anger? Or at least offer some reassurance that, yes, heads have rolled and the state will be offering extra compensation to those whose lives it turned upside down?

Not in Happy Fantasy Snyder Fun Land!

One needs to step outside that frame in order to see things as they really are. For instance, take a look at the language in this press release from Michigan’s AFL-CIO. The issue? Not streamlining, upgrading, or continuing conversations, but “news that the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency is in the process of refunding $20.8 million to people who were falsely accused of unemployment fraud.” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber says:

“It’s time to make this right. What happened to these people is absolutely tragic. Lives were literally ruined by the Snyder administration’s mistake. While this refund is a good step in the right direction, it’s just not enough to repair the damage. The state has an obligation to repay every single penny they stole from these workers, and they should repay them with interest.”

Now it may be opinionated and a bit emotional but, doesn't it sound like it comes from an actual human being with a beating heart?

Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Gov. Snyder’s lacking after all.