Conspiracy theorists spark PR headache for federal agencies

The Social Security Administration took to its blog to defuse a PR crisis amid reports that it and other federal agencies were buying thousands of rounds of hollow-point bullets


Could the federal government be arming itself to hold off mobs of rioting senior citizens enraged about a pending collapse of the Social Security system?

That’s just one scenario proposed by critics when federal agencies not known for kick-down-the-door SWAT enforcement recently sought to buy thousands of rounds of hollow-point ammunition.

Faced with a still-simmering PR crisis in an era of distrust of the government, the Social Security Administration took to its new blog last week to explain that it is one of many federal entities with enforcement agents.

‘An excellent vehicle’

“We found the blog to be an excellent vehicle for communicating this message to the media, to interested Members of Congress and their staffs, and to the public,” spokesman Jonathan L. Lasher told me in an email Tuesday.

“Our new website is less than a year old, and the blog is an even more recent addition, and the traffic to that post has been very, very high.”

No wonder. Even as officials sought to explain the bullet buy, guns were blazing across the Internet.

“Obscure federal agencies triggered a firestorm of conspiracy theories this week after they put out orders for thousands of rounds of deadly hollow-point bullets,” Fox News reported.

Bloggers and media outlets ranging from the Kremlin-sponsored RT.com to the East Texas NBC affiliate KETK leaped on the issue.

Initial reports stated that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was buying ammo for the National Weather Service (to shoot down stray weather balloons?). But NOAA later corrected the report, saying the bullets are actually meant for its National Marine Fisheries Service law enforcement agents, The Washington Post reported.

Rioting seniors?

The libertarian website Infowars.com (“because there is a war on for your mind”), which broke the ammunition story, speculated that the ammo buy could be part of preparations for civil unrest:

Social security welfare is estimated to keep around 40 per cent of senior citizens out of poverty. Should the tap run dry in the aftermath of an economic collapse which the Federal Reserve has already told top banks to prepare for, domestic disorder could ensue if people are refused their benefits.

The SSA’s Office of the Inspector General’s blog explained the issue in terms familiar to watchers of cop shows:

When most of us think of Federal agents, we think of the Hollywood version, dressed in suits and sunglasses. You may also know, thanks to a TV show called NCIS, that Federal agencies other than the FBI also have law enforcement agents. In fact, dozens of Federal agencies have their own law enforcement authority, and special agents who use that authority every day.

Social Security is no different. We have criminal investigators—aka special agents—who are responsible for investigating violations of the laws that govern Social Security’s programs. Currently, about 230 special agents work in 66 offices across the United States. Just like FBI or NCIS agents, our investigators have full law enforcement authority, including executing search warrants and making arrests.

The SSA’s officers must also respond to threats to employees and customers, it stated. As for the hollow-point, the SSA said that “this type of ammunition is standard issue for many law enforcement agencies.”

Fair enough. But one warning may do little calm anyone afraid that grandma might come nose-to-nose with a .357 Sig pistol if she filled out the wrong line on a government form.

“Next time you sign a Social Security form, pay attention to that stern warning at the bottom about the penalties for lying on the form,” the blog stated. “If you ever wondered if that was really a crime, now you know.”

Meanwhile, the Post was noting an even scarier scenario than marauding seniors: NOAA had previously been forced to pull “a $5,000 solicitation for a magician to motivate employees at a leadership-training event.”

Did it work?

Whether the rounds were needed is a matter for others to determine. But readers at PR Daily want to know: was there a better way the agencies could have handled communications?

The SSA’s Lasher, for one, feels good about addressing matters on the blog. Not only was it transparent, it also allowed for two-way communications.

“There have also been many comments, so in addition to outbound communication and transparency, it’s given us inbound feedback and dialogue,” he says. “We would do it the same way again.”

Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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