DENVER — Shortly after Postmaster General John E. Potter emphatically told a packed crowd at the opening session of the National Postal Forum yesterday that the risk of unsafe mail is small in the wake of the anthrax attacks, he and other postal executives were whisked away to Washington to meet with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and his staff about a letter they received that contained anthrax.
The discovery of anthrax followed earlier instances in Florida, New York and Nevada in which at least 12 people were exposed to spores of the potentially deadly bacteria. Monday night, another case was announced in New York.
The piece of mail in Daschle's office, which contained a powdery substance, was dispatched to an Army medical research facility for further examination. The Daschle letter — and similar scares in other congressional offices — prompted a halt to all mail deliveries to the Capitol.
In addition, a small amount of anthrax spores was found in a postal service building that handles mail for a supermarket tabloid publisher whose employees were exposed to the germ, one fatally. Employees responsible for sorting mail in the small, private area of the mail sorting facility have received nasal swabs that came back negative for anthrax. About 30 workers were tested and are taking antibiotics.
As a result of the crisis, the theme of the Forum this year, was undoubtedly security, and how the USPS is doing everything it can to assuage fears the American people have about bioterrorism.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I spent the weekend telling the American people that the mail is safe,” Potter said, “and that federal law enforcement officers from the [USPS] Inspection Service to the FBI will bring to justice whoever or whatever is behind this evil, malicious activity.”
Potter added that “if we in the industry can spend time now educating and bringing a common-sense perspective to what's happening, we will provide a valuable service to the nation, our customers and the U.S. mail.”
He also announced the formation of a task force to review every plan the agency has concerning mail security and the handling of hazardous materials. It will be led by chief postal inspector Kenneth Weaver, who will be joined by union representatives, management association representatives, members of the Office of Inspector General, safety and medical specialists from the USPS' human resources department, senior operational managers, Inspection Service staff and representatives of the mailing industry.
“Make no mistake, we cannot sit back and allow our nation's confidence in the mail to erode,” Potter said.
Members of the mailing community agreed that it is returning to business as usual.
“The mail is safe, and Americans are going to go on with their daily lives and are going to continue to open up direct mail pieces,” said Vincent Giuliano, senior vice president of government relations at ADVO Inc, Windsor, CT.
However, some say the anthrax scare may force the industry to change the types of mail pieces it sends. No longer can direct mail pieces look obscure or deliberately shady. Though this may have gotten people to open mail before, it won't work now.
Direct mail pieces must look more professional, mailers said. They must have the company's name clearly on the envelope and have the correct postage and barcodes.
A brand message is more important than ever on direct mail, said David Sable, president/CEO of Wunderman, New York. Without this, customers may be afraid to open the piece.
“Oftentimes, direct marketers in the past didn't understand the importance of the brand when it came to direct marketing pieces,” he said. “But now, people aren't going to open mail that seems strange. They are going to open mail that comes from companies that have established brands for themselves, and the brand messages are going to be clearly marked on the envelope of the mail piece.”