WASHINGTON: The US Postal Service (USPS) has launched a multi-faceted PR campaign to sell through a 10-year plan aimed at helping stem financial losses, which includes a controversial proposal to eliminate Saturday service.
Postmaster General John Potter unveiled the plan, which included other cost-cutting measures at a conference on March 2 called “Envisioning America's Future Postal Service.” The USPS used the platform to deliver grim news: If it fails to act, it faces a projected loss of $238 billion by 2020, in part due to a forecasted drop in mail volume (including a 37% decline in first-class mail).
“Toward the end of January, we came up with the idea of having a conference so we could bring all the stakeholders into one room and have them hear the same information at the same time,” says Joanne Veto, senior manager, PR and promotional communications, USPS. About 329 people attended the conference, including legislative members, lettercarriers, small business owners, and representatives from the catalogue business, as well as lobbyists.
The conference was organized by Powell Tate, the public affairs division of Weber Shandwick, which became USPS's AOR for strategic messaging, including crisis communications, about a year ago. The conference included several presentations, including from Mel Wolfgang of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Tim Dohrman from McKinsey & Co. USPS hired BCG to provide forecasting expertise and McKinsey to provide an analysis of cost-reducing and revenue-generating options.
The conference included a Q&A period, and attendees were also handed fact sheets that covered such areas as workforce, pricing, and legislative and regulatory actions. “Our message needed to be strong, to show that it was not spin and that the information being provided was based in fact,” said Veto. “It was presented in a very straightforward manner, with the overarching message that there is no one solution.”
The day before the conference, USPS also held a two-hour pre-briefing with media including NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Washington Post, USA Today, and Associated Press. The briefing included access to Postmaster Potter, as well as the consultants from BCG and McKinsey. “The goal was transparency—‘Here is the ugly truth, the numbers are large, and we want you to understand the barriers,'” said Veto. “So when the first stories hit Tuesday, it laid the foundation for the difficult news that would come later that morning: the $238 billion number.” In anticipation of media inquiries, USPS delivered press materials to the 60 corporate communications personnel in post offices across the country.
USPS also communicated the plan to its 590,000 workforce. Fact sheets, FAQs and other information were posted on the company intranet. Articles were written up on the employee newsletter, The Link. Postmaster Potter also recorded a video message, which was broadcast on its internal TV network reaching 38,000 facilities. “The letter carrier is out in the community, and they need to know what is happening because people will ask them, ‘Am I going to get mail on Saturday'? And they will for quite awhile yet,” Veto told PRWeek. “The public interface is really important.”
So far, the most controversial part of the plan has come from the proposed elimination of Saturday service, which is opposed by the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) which represents over 200,000 city delivery letter carriers employed by USPS. The union, which fears cutting Saturday service would leave it vulnerable to competitors, issued a statement in which it urged Congress to provide “financial breathing room” so a better plan can be developed.
Drew Von Bergen, NACL's director of PR, said the union plans to meet with state legislative liaisons later this month to discuss communication strategies moving forward, including the proposal of an alternative to cutting Saturday service.
The Direct Marketers Association, meanwhile, is not necessarily opposed to five-day delivery—as long as the move keeps postage rates down. “We have instituted aggressive proactive outreach to deliver our position and speak out on behalf of our membership,” said Sue Geramian, SVP, chief communications officer, DMA, in an e-mail to PRWeek. “We have made our lead government affairs executives Linda Woolley and Jerry Cerasale visible and available for interviews which have included major print (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times)… as well as NBC television news and CBS National news radio, among others.”
On March 15, USPS begins phase two of its PR outreach. Top officials will conduct a media tour, as well as speak to employees at plants and offices nationwide. “We want our workforce to better understand that this is not going to happen tomorrow,” Veto said.
USPS will also discuss the plan at the National Postal Forum April 11 to 14 in Nashville, TN. “It attracts about 5,000 people, so we'll have special sessions for people who couldn't be in Washington, DC,” she said.