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Do Not Mail Initiatives -- Truth Outweighs Hype

May 2009 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
DEPENDING ON your point of view, the news out of San Francisco is either devastating or a continued call to arms in the battle against Do Not Mail proponents and their efforts at passing legislation at the state and federal levels.

On March 31, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a non-binding resolution urging both the California state legislature and the United States Congress to establish a Do Not Mail registry. That it was passed in San Francisco, the green epicenter of the world, should come as no shock. This is the same governing body that has repeatedly introduced legislation that would prohibit its downtown commercial buildings from leaving the lights on after hours—creating a darkened city skyline in the name of electricity conservation.

Reason for Concern

Regardless of how one views environmental extremism, there is little levity to be found in efforts to curtail advertising mail. Printers, mailers, advertisers, small businesses and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) would be severely impacted by the creation of a federal Do Not Mail registry, and any state-passed registry would certainly provide a gateway to a national effort. 

“The symbolism is probably more concerning that the actual resolution,” says Lisbeth Lyons, vice president of Government Affairs for Printing Industries of America. “We don’t expect to see a nationwide bill introduced by Congress anytime soon, but it’s always concerning when you see a state the size of California, with its reputation for progressive leadership when it comes to initiatives like this, get involved in Do Not Mail.”

The ability of the USPS, for one, to function as an ongoing, viable concern would become an open question. It recently shuttered six district offices, eliminated 1,400 mail processing supervisor and management positions, and offered early retirement to nearly 150,000 employees. In 2008, the USPS embarked on cost-cutting actions including a reduction in work hours by 50 million, salary and hiring freezes, and a minimum 15 percent reduction in authorized staffing levels at postal headquarters and area offices.

The USPS is looking at a loss of $6 billion for 2009, according to Postmaster General John Potter.

How dire is the USPS’ situation? Potter proposes reducing the number of delivery days to five, which would save an estimated $3.5 billion a year. This action is largely opposed in printing circles.

Still, rationalization will rear its head in some form or another. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia in March, Potter urged lawmakers to provide the USPS with flexibility in regard to mandated retiree health benefit payments. The H.R. 22 bill reversing the mandatory retiree funding requirement would save the USPS $2 billion.

“Mr. ZIP” is definitely in a tight spot. The recession has visited a terrible toll on the USPS, as mail volume, which stood at 212 billion pieces as recently as 2007, is expected to plummet to 180 billion pieces—a 15 percent decline.

Looking after the interests of the USPS, mailers, printers, etc., is the Mail Moves America (MMA) coalition, led by Ben Cooper. A principal of Washington, DC-based government affairs firm Williams & Jensen, he notes that 19 Do Not Mail bills were considered at the state level over the past two years. Three more bills came around in the first three months of 2009; at press time, an effort in Florida was squashed.

“The appetite for pure Do Not Mail legislation seems a little less hearty in 2009, probably due to the focus on the larger issues of jobs, the economy and healthcare,” notes Jim Andersen, president and CEO of Chanhassen, MN-based IWCO Direct, a direct mail solutions provider. “Mail Moves America is keeping the industry alerted to other legislation such as ‘Do Not Offer’ bills that would impact the printing and mailing industries.”

New Credit Crunch Angle

The month of May is actually a critical one, as the ForestEthics Do Not Mail crusade was launched May 11, and Cooper anticipates the interest group promoting the introduction of legislation in another state, perhaps more than one. Still, what has benefited the MMA crusade is the fact that so-called “junk mail” is vying for mind share with more pressing issues of the day, namely the economy.

“Frankly, mail volume is down so much right now that it’s hard to imagine the average household being overwhelmed by advertising mail,” Cooper notes. “The financial services companies are the largest mailers of advertising mail. They’re in stress right now, so they’re not (mailing) as much as in the past. There aren’t nearly as many credit card offers being mailed as there were two or three years ago.”

According to Andersen, financial services has been hit hard primarily because the pool of eligible prospects has eroded. Thus, there is no logic in sending a credit card or loan offer to recipients who cannot qualify under today’s more stringent requirements.

“In some cases, volume is off by 50 percent or even more for some campaigns,” Andersen points out. “At the same time, we are seeing growth in sectors like insurance and healthcare, which are mailing at the same—or even higher levels—than in 2008.”

How does the issue of advertising mail hold up in the court of public opinion? Certainly, the man on the street doesn’t get particularly excited about the subject of advertising mail. But staunch opponents/activists/environmentalists rattle the sabres by tying unwanted mail to deforestation, the clogging of our nation’s landfills, the resulting tons of greenhouse gas emissions, identity theft...childhood obesity, escalating divorce rates, farms for euthanizing puppies and just about any cause that can prompt an emotional response.

Fortunately for printers and mailers, MMA provides lawmakers with factual information that dispels these notions. “If you judge public opinion based on blog and Internet comments, you’d be convinced that junk mail is the scourge of the universe and the biggest contributor to global warming,” Cooper states. “If you grab people off the street and ask them, ‘Do you like advertising mail?’ 100 percent are going to say no, unless you happen to grab a printer. And even he might say no.

“It’s easy to raise emotions when it comes to advertising mail. So, from the court of public opinion, they’ve got a relatively soft target. We need to dismantle their arguments by factually refuting what they say. But, that’s not going to win the fight for us. It’s very hard to argue the facts with adversaries that ignore them. They’re preying upon people’s emotions.”

Andersen, for one, applauds the tireless efforts of the MMA coalition in not yielding any legislative ground. “There was a great deal of activity in 2008, some of it a carryover from 2007. But industry organizations, led by Mail Moves America, did a remarkable job in preventing these bills from even getting to a vote. MMA deserves a great deal of credit for educating legislators about the number of jobs related to the mailing industry, as well as real facts about the environmental impact of advertising mail.”

Remain Vigilant

Fortunately, education still rules the day. Cooper points out that a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that the global economic slowdown will have a mixed impact on forests; with demand for forest products falling, the forestry industries in a number of countries are on the verge of collapse.

“Properly managed forests are very positive for the forest industry,” he says. “Without proper management, you lose trees, so there is a vested interest for forest and paper businesses. The things (Do Not Mail) proponents say haven’t been true for a very long time. But they continue to use these hyperbolic statements.”

Since Do Not Mail advocates have failed at every turn, it stands to reason that they are constantly going back to the drawing board for new lines of attack. Proposed bills have been tweaked to provide exemptions for political mail, non-profits and small businesses. These bills “attempt to carve out communities to get support,” Cooper adds. So why is compromise not an option from the mailing point of view?

The impact could be disastrous for mailers. If 5 percent of residents in a given state signed onto a Do Not Mail registry, most mailers would just opt not to mail in that state, according to Cooper. And passage in just one state would provide a gateway for other states which, in the case of telemarketing, led to the creation of the national Do Not Call registry.

For now, Lyons feels the best tact is to continue with the “Whack-A-Mole” style of turning aside legislative attempts via educational efforts with key members of Congress; providing factual information and an illuminating perspective on the pitfalls such legislation would have on any number of businesses. The battle, she concedes, is far from over.

“The advocates pushing Do Not Mail initiatives are not going away,” Lyons concludes. “These are very well-funded groups that are very passionate about their cause. They’ve made mail, paper and trees their target, and we’re going to be in that bulls eye for some time to come. We must continue to be very vigilant.” PI


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