Paying the Price for Poor Communication

The current level of negative publicity about the Postal Service – notably for slow or infrequent delivery, the impact of reported changes in mail processing and delivery procedures, and the potential consequences of these changes on election mail – might not have to be what it is if the USPS simply were more communicative.

Institutional Reticence

Historically, the agency has seldom if ever spoken up in its own defense – whether to set the record straight when erroneous information is presented in the media, or to offer its side of the story, or the reasons for what was reported.

The Postal Service’s reticence is deeply rooted in its institutional culture.  Whether because of caution urged by its legal team, fears of political backlash from Congress, worries about offending its labor unions, or uncertainty over how its message would be understood by the average citizen, the USPS believes it has ample reasons to avoid saying much.

However, looking back at the situations in which the Postal Service was the target for editorial or political criticism, one must ask how much the outcome of those situations might have been improved for the USPS, or at least the facts of those situations clarified if the agency hadn’t stayed silent.

Getting your story out

It doesn’t take a degree in journalism to understand the importance of getting your story out first; why the USPS doesn’t understand this is puzzling.  Similarly, anticipating potential points of criticism, and getting an appropriate message out before critics speak based on fragmentary or incorrect information, seems fundamental.

For example, the current disquiet over processing and delivery delays, and their potential impact on election mail, has commonly been tied to the leaked directives about cutting overtime and tightening delivery schedules.  That the USPS hadn’t anticipated the sensitivity of those directives and the related need to explain them before they were disseminated – even internally – is equally puzzling.

Moreover, given the impact of COVID on postal workers as much as the rest of the population, it’s reasonable to ask how much of the reported delays are because of COVID-related absenteeism, whether at processing facilities or at delivery units.  Are carriers working longer hours because of package volume, or new procedures, or because colleagues are out sick or quarantining with family members?  We don’t know, because the USPS isn’t saying anything.

As this is being written, Operations is reviewing third quarter (April-June) service performance during the virtual MTAC meeting.  Needless to say, service during PQ III likely was impacted by COVID-related employee absenteeism, but where was the Postal Service’s messaging to tell the public and mailers that it was being impacted by COVID-related challenges?  Instead, while service issues were obvious, and reported in the media, the USPS remained mute about the situation and was criticized as a result.

Aside from how much of the current circumstances are related to COVID, any portion caused by operational or delivery changes is equally speculative; but again, the USPS continues to let others deliver their messages first.

Leaving the stage to others

An old axiom states that in the absence of knowledge, people make stuff up.  In the absence of information from the USPS, or answers to likely questions, people (and the press) will speculate – make up their own answers – or look for answers from sources that really shouldn’t be contacted for “official” responses.

For example, a three-minute spot on National Public Radio on July 23 discussed the changes contained in the leaked directives.  However, whether the USPS was contacted or not (there’s no way to know), there was no-one from the Postal Service explaining the changes, why they were being made, or how they might impact customers.  Instead, listeners heard from the president of the American Postal Workers Union, who presumed to speak for all employees:

“So the union and the people that we represent – postal workers in general – are absolutely opposed to any policies that just slow down the mail in the name of whatever the name is – cost-cutting, in this case.”

As we’ve opined before, regardless of the need for operational efficiency, cost reduction, or adherence to standard operating procedures, the new PMG isn’t going to make that happen by sitting at his desk and issuing directives.  He needs the workforce to apply their discretionary effort to support his objectives and, if the ever-voluble APWU is any indication, he’s nowhere near having that support.

However, if he wants to outflank the resistance, and win support among the public, in Congress, and in the media, he needs to significantly improve his agency’s messaging.  The USPS needs to stop being off-the-air, and tell its story, fully, accurately, and – most importantly – first.

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