The past week capped off an astounding publicity coup for the U.S. Postal Service, which is not usually known for its adroit public relations.
Years of conferences, letter writing, study reports, and publicity campaigns by mailers, postal unions, and postal management had largely failed to draw much attention to USPS’s financial plight – or to Congress’ role in causing that plight.
Suddenly last week, it seemed, news of the Postal Service’s dire straits was everywhere – on front pages, leading off network newscasts, featured in one of David Letterman’s famous Top 10 lists, and the subject of a hilarious “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” bit.
What turned the tide wasn’t highly paid lobbyists, high-powered PR consultants, ot clever slogans. (Remember efforts to brand so-called prepaid retiree health benefits as a “Stamp Tax”?)
The key was a bit of Reality Therapy, in the form of postal executives spelling out what they would have to do to keep the Postal Service solvent in light of Congressional policies.
It started with a small dose of reality in late July when USPS announced a list of 3,700 underperforming post offices being considered for closure. The small post offices represent less than 1% of USPS’s budget, and their closure would not be as momentous as recent consolidations of processing and distribution centers.
The news media and general public, however, know little of P&DCs, but everyone knows what a post office is. Post office closings, along with the Postal Service's financial problems, became a hot topic-- with some articles even mentioning that Congress’ failure to yield on USPS’ pension and benefit overfunding as a major culprit. The timing was perfect: After the debt-ceiling debacle, the public didn’t have a hard time believing that Congress was to blame for much of USPS’s trouble.
Then the big dose came last month when Postmaster General Pat Donahoe announced his radical transformation plan, which called for laying off an estimated 120,000 postal workers and closing more than 300 P&DCs over the next four years. The prospect of having to rescind no-layoff clauses in union contracts and putting so many postal employees out of work got Congress' attention.
The news-media pack started smelling a juicy story. It couldn’t resist the opportunity for multiple sound bites from a Congressional hearing this past Tuesday.
“We have NEVER seen this many cameras for a #Postal hearing,” Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe tweeted a few minutes before the hearing began.
Despite the praise from mailer groups, Donahoe’s plan is deeply flawed. For example, smoothly transition from more than 500 P&DCs to fewer than 200 in only a year? Not likely.
But the proposal has succeeded in drawing attention to what Not-In-My-District politics, Congressional accounting games, and White House inaction are doing to an organization that touches every American without spending taxpayer money. Perhaps from all this notoriety and discussion, real solutions can emerge.