Fax Advertisers Rally as Deadline Nears

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Fax advertisers are mobilizing in response to new federal rules that require them to obtain written permission to send commercial faxes, but time before the rules take effect is running out. Meanwhile, several petitions have been filed in an attempt to delay the rules.


The new Federal Communications Commission requirement becomes effective Aug. 25, but some marketers who use fax advertising are just becoming aware of the rules. Fax advertisers fear that the written-permission requirement could jeopardize continued use of the fax machine in marketing.


Previously, the FCC had banned unsolicited commercial faxes but allowed such faxes to be sent to customers with whom the sender has an existing business relationship. In new rules published last month, the FCC found that the existing business relationship exemption was insufficient grounds for sending commercial faxes.


That decision shocked many commercial faxers, including both providers of fax technology and users of the medium, who said they had no prior indication that the FCC was considering such a substantial change to the rules. The story was overshadowed by the launch of the national telemarketing no-call list and not covered extensively in the mainstream media, leaving commercial faxers who knew of the change pressed to inform colleagues.


Many businesses and organizations use fax advertising, but one group that depends on the medium is trade associations. According to Marketing General Inc., a firm that specializes in marketing for trade groups, these associations depend on faxes for up to 80 percent of their marketing.


The American Society of Association Executives, a Washington interest group representing 500 trade associations, has filed two petitions with the FCC, one asking the agency to delay implementation of the rules. The other asks the FCC to clarify the rules to exempt nonprofits, or else "the enormously laudatory and valuable work of tens of thousands of membership organizations, charities, advocacy organizations and other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations would be unnecessarily interrupted or impeded."


Proximity Marketing, which does subscription renewal by fax for clients, and American Business Media, a trade association representing business-to-business publications, also filed separate petitions with the FCC last week asking for a six-month delay to the implementation of the fax rules. The FCC has yet to respond to any of the petitions.


Fax advertisers had little notice that the commission would impose stricter regulations and have had little time to adapt, said ASAE spokesman Chris Vest.


"It's like they skipped a step," Vest said. "They put out a notice for public comment but they didn't follow up with actual proposed rules that we could go over."


The ASAE is encouraging a grass-roots effort by members to contact lawmakers, Vest said. Another grass-roots movement is in the works from ABS Fax Technology, Houston, which began the Web site LegalFax.org last month. LegalFax is organizing a petition drive, for which it has collected 100 signatures, and plans to send the petition to two congressional subcommittees that deal with telecommunications, as well as Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. The petition asks Congress to reverse the FCC's rulemaking on fax solicitations.


LegalFax is obtaining petition signatures online and has no goal for the number it hopes to acquire, said ABS secretary/treasurer Michael Chodrow. But it aims to send a message to lawmakers that the rule will have broad and harmful effects.


"It lets them know that people all around the country and in all avenues of business are concerned about this," he said.


The written-permission requirement is an overreaction to the FCC's failure to enforce the old rules, which were sufficient but rarely used against the few bad actors in the commercial fax industry, Chodrow said. The FCC has obtained multimillion-dollar fines against repeat fax offenders but has failed to put some of them out of business.


Chodrow said he was frustrated that the government's apparent insensitivity comes during a Republican administration, a complaint heard often in telemarketing circles.


"I'm tired of a government that's supposedly pro-business," he said. "It's really pro-big business."


A window of opportunity exists to secure customers for faxing, if only for the next few days. Marketing and legal advisers are giving their clients form letters to send to customers to get permission. Many of the forms also seek telemarketing and e-mail permission.


"We're advising our clients to get on the stick and get their current clients and prospect lists clear to fax," said Richard Whelan, president of Marketing General, Alexandria, VA. "At the same time, we're asking them to think about clearing those audiences for phone calls and e-mail."


Groups may consider using e-mail as their main way to contact members. However, because many members may be flooded with e-mail already, associations won't want to rely on it too heavily, Whelan said.


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