USPS: Managing Communication During the Anthrax Crisis
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USPS: Managing Communication During the Anthrax Crisis

In October 2001 as America was still reeling from the horrific events of September 11, a second wave of terrorism gripped the nation. Letters containing the deadly anthrax virus were delivered through the mail to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. and to media offices in New York and Florida.

Paul Holmes

In October 2001 as America was still reeling from the horrific events of September 11, a second wave of terrorism gripped the nation. Letters containing the deadly anthrax virus were delivered through the mail to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. and to media offices in New York and Florida. The severity of the crisis was daunting – 800,000 employees potentially at risk, 28,000 facilities potentially contaminated, and mail carriers bringing potentially contaminated materials to every home and business in America. The safety of the mail was in question.
Assurances by the nation’s top health officials that Postal Service employees were not at risk soon proved to be wrong; two employees died of inhalation anthrax, seven more were treated for either skin or inhalation anthrax, and about 16,000 more were prescribed preventive medication. Confusion mounted as health officials debated issues concerning antibiotic use and the medication’s availability in large enough quantities to manage a national bioterror threat.
At the same time, the Postal Service was adapting to an irregular mail flow – processing mail around closed facilities, many containing quarantined mail, and modifying its operations to introduce irradiation/sanitization, adding a new layer to its processes.
By November, one of the busiest mailing periods prior to the holidays, a criminal investigation was at its height and the Postal Service and health officials had more knowledge about which facilities, equipment, and mail may have been contaminated. Concern was widespread – employees feared for their lives, customers were afraid to open their mail, major mailers were trying to ensure the safety of their products and workforce – and a range of stakeholders were desperate for updates, including an overwhelming demand from the media.
 The objective was to restore confidence and trust in the U.S. postal system among: the public, who was continuing to receive their mail each day; employees, who were handling and delivering the mail; and major mailers, who were preparing their products, interacting with USPS facilities and equipment, and whose vitality depends on the mail system. Every stakeholder of the Postal Service had to be reassured, and thus, effective communication became a paramount objective.
Communication leaders held brief planning meetings each morning. They developed scenario/contingency plans and conducted strategic planning sessions as major events unfolded. A dedicated communications team was on-site during the duration of the crisis. In addition, an information management process was established for all incoming and outgoing inquiries, messages, and data was critical to the success of the campaign.
As soon as the crisis team was assembled, stakeholder questions and feedback were then solicited. Feedback was analyzed daily and communications adjusted accordingly. This research proved invaluable as USPS moved through the crisis. A more formal spot attitudinal research with the public was also conducted.
Burson-Marsteller moved quickly to identify key audiences whose perspectives were needed and with whom information about the crisis had to shared – the American public, business customers (90 percent of the mail originates from from business), Postal Service management and employees, labor organizations, industry organizations, suppliers, the media who were critical to reaching the public and key government officials in the executive and legislative branches.
 Facing a crisis with monumental national security and health ramifications, guiding principle was settled on – be the mailman, not the doctor. Concerns about the safety of employees, customers, facilities, and mail could be addressed, but USPS could not and would not make medical policy – this was left to the scientific experts. Scientific opinion was shifting constantly during the crisis, and USPS had to remain focused.
The communication strategy had four basic tenets:
· Control the information: determine where the vital information “lived”, gauge what was important to each audience and find the best ways to share and update relevant information.
· Control the message: national and field offices speaking in one voice; concise – particularly on days when USPS “was the news”, communication was kept tight, clear and simple; and contained – USPS would not speculate, speaking only to what it knew.
· Control the clock: Crisis is 24/7 for today’s news media – USPS chose to be a source, not an obstacle. USPS leveraged electronic channels to provide constant updates, prepare daily briefings, and leverage the morning shows to help set the day’s news tone. USPS trusted that by continuously providing reporters the facts, they would choose not to embellish rumors.
· Illustrate the unfamiliar: As an example, the “path of the mail” for anthrax-laden letters would be critical to demonstrating how health authorities and the Postal Service could determine who/what facilities were most at risk, and how investigators could pinpoint areas of interest for their investigation. Reporters and other stakeholders were made to understand how mail flows through the postal system, and the specific how’s/where’s/when’s of the path for the contaminated letters.
USPS had to work across the organization to manage an overwhelming flow of information and events in the collapsed timeframe that a crisis demands. A rigorous, methodical approach was used to determine what the message of the day would be and to disseminate against that message. Internally, the senior leadership team met each morning to review and agree to anticipated issues, the day’s objective and the latest facts and messages.
The Postmaster General met daily with union leaders and spoke personally with employees and major customers. Externally, the communications function became a catalyst for driving consensus among government agencies involved in the crisis. Tactically, the crisis was managed in innovative ways, including:
· A special million piece mailing for every U.S. household with safety guidelines for mail handling
· A redesigned Internet site, created in just days, with a dedicated section on “keeping the mail safe and moving” with audience-tailored facts, videos, Q&A, posters, and mail service updates
· A daily or twice-daily facts update posted on the Web and sent through e-mail/fax, mitigating thousands of customer and media calls
· A daily update for local postmasters with facts/ messages for their discussions with employees, customers, and communities
· A three-tiered spokesperson cadre and daily press briefings with major media when needed
· Supervisors using crisis discussions/toolkits in mandatory all-employee meetings for USPS 800,000-person workforce
· An employee hotline for medical illness reports and general information A summit with executives of major customers to discuss ways to keep the mail safe and moving
· Producing and distributing 15,000 ‘Safe Mail Handling’ videos to business mailers
· Postal Service representatives helping establish a government anthrax crisis taskforce, a central clearinghouse for all government departments
Process proved just as critical as tactics. USPS created a research and “news gathering machine” – internal “reporters” were in constant contact with stakeholder groups gathering questions/comments/concerns, as well as with functions, the field, and external sources for the latest information; crisis team writers constantly updated core content and vehicles, and then helped integrate new information into existing channels.
 The Postal Service moved through the crisis with its credibility intact, a communications function that more effectively manages information and constituency relations, and a forward-looking focus to restore the brand.
At the height of the crisis, the usps.com press release website was receiving 280,000 hits per week, whereas ordinarily that site would receive about 3,000.
On November 12, 2001, The Wall Street Journal featured usps.com in its “The Web@ Work” column, as a case study for the successful use of a Web site in a crisis communication.
Media stories reflected the USPS briefings and messages, and media reporters became advocates rather than adversaries, helping to convey information and calm the fears of the public.
A December 2001 public opinion poll indicated that 97 percent of respondents approved of the Postal Service’s overall handling of the crisis; 96 percent said it was doing everything within reason to protect against future terrorism; and 96 percent felt that sending/receiving mail and packages was safe.
Of the 90,000 employee respondents to a “Voice of the Employee” survey in Nov-Dec 2001, 71 percent responded favorably to the statement, “I am proud to work for the Postal Service”, a 3 percent increase over the same quarter the previous year.
In a July 2002 qualitative survey of major mailers, 16 out of 20 respondents said they were satisfied with the Postal Service’s management of the crisis and found it to be open and accessible, providing as much information as possible. Seventeen out of 20 used usps.com daily for fact updates and other information.Dec 2002, postal service mail volumes are near pre-crisis levels at 700 million items a day. Research indicates that mail volumes are a reflection of the economy, not the crisis.
Untold news stories have documented the crisis. The media continues to report fairly and favorably on facility decontamination and other issues.
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