Western Union Speeds Contact With Congress

Marketers and organizations hamstrung by new restrictions on courier delivery to Capitol Hill now can turn to Western Union to hand deliver their correspondence.

The money transfer and message services company partnered with Capitol Advantage LLC, a provider of online advocacy applications, to receive messages via an electronic pipeline for transfer to paper.

“This complements our Western Union Hotline product, which allows constituents to put Western Union-branded messages in their legislator’s hands in real time when the House or Senate is voting on a piece of legislation,” said Julie Richman, Parkland, FL-based vice president of Western Union Commercial Messaging.

Western Union has had an office in one of the congressional buildings for 150 years. It is now staffed by three employees. Letters printed in that office do not undergo the time-consuming security screening and decontamination process that postal mail does, giving Western Union an advantage over other delivery methods.

“Access — it’s as simple as that,” said Bob Hansan, president of Capitol Advantage, Fairfax, VA. “Fewer and fewer people are allowed up on Capitol Hill to get their message out there. You can’t overnight something, you just can’t send the courier anymore. What this allows is another avenue for people to communicate with Capitol Hill and their staff.

“Mail has to go through an irradiation process. So that adds two to three weeks for something that gets mailed.

“Also, the overnight delivery houses — FedEx, UPS — have all left Capitol Hill because they could not get through the security process.”

One obvious target for this service is the government affairs division of corporations and organizations. Called Extra Impact Messaging, it is available to customers of CapWiz, a Capitol Advantage technology that firms use to send messages, letters or invitations to Congress.

CapWiz users include Yahoo, AOL, USAToday.com and PBS as well as associations like AARP, American Medical Association and the American Bankers Association.

CapWiz’s working is simple. Consumers visit the legislative areas of the Web sites of the above-mentioned entities. Hosted by Capitol Advantage, this area invites consumers to enter their address and compose a message for delivery to their pertinent member of Congress. The organization decides how to send the messages — e-mail, fax and now hand delivery.

The Extra Impact Messaging option is straightforward to use. Once activated, the CapWiz messages will be printed in the Western Union office on Capitol Hill for hand delivery the next business day.

This is not to say that marketers, organizations and consumers cannot contact members of Congress by other means. They can do so by e-mail, fax or U.S. Postal Service mail.

“I’m not going to argue against the real validity of e-mail because e-mail’s very inexpensive and very effective, and fax is very good as well,” Hansan said. “But sometimes you think of it as a double-decker. Sometimes you’re going to go into there [Congress] with a couple of different ways.”

Indeed, Capitol Advantage claims to account for 20 percent to 25 percent of all online constituent messages Capitol Hill receives from corporations or organizations. Around 10.14 million constituent messages were sent last year via CapWiz. This year, already 9 million messages have been sent.

However, channels like e-mail may lack the punch of actual letters. Moreover, e-mail threatens to swamp members of Congress.

From 1999 to 2002, inbound e-mail rose about 186 percent to House members and 69 percent to senators. The House of Representatives and Senate in 2001 received 117 million messages. On an average day, House offices received 234,245 e-mails and Senate offices got 88,009.

Those figures are from research by the Congress Online Project, an effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted jointly by George Washington University and the Congressional Management Foundation.

E-mail volume to Congress is stabilizing. But that results more from filters for spam, cracking down on fake e-mail addresses that use the names of celebrities in an effort to get opened and better congressional Web sites that encourage use of Web-based forms.

Still, some think that e-mails are not that effective in this clutter, lacking the effect of a printed note.

Capitol Advantage pays Western Union for every message delivered. CapWiz users negotiate an annual fee based on volume. They are charged for every message delivered by hand. Clients do not pay an additional amount for choosing the e-mail option, though there is a small fee for fax.

Extra Impact Messaging missives are composed the same way as CapWiz ones. The process can be set up in one day for the company or organization.

Equally important, the messages can be printed on Extra Impact stationery, custom notepaper or on the company letterhead.

It can be argued that fax offers the same advantages as the Western Union-Capitol Advantage product. But again, that channel suffers from overuse.

“They’re so inundated with faxes up there, often you can’t get through on fax,” Hansan said. “When you’re fighting over a piece of legislation that is so critical for your industry, you want to make sure that that message gets there.”

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