Junk mail: the two words most dreaded by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). It is also the phrase that its communications team, along with the rest of the association, has to endlessly explain is different to the advertising mail that it represents and advocates.
But in July last year, it wasn’t simply tabloid stories bemoaning the perils of ‘junk mail’, but a 30-minute long focus on the industry in the high-profile BBC consumer affairs show Panorama. In Why Hate Junk Mail?, reporter Tom Heap fronted an investigation into whether junk mail is bad for the environment, and also asked if the Royal Mail is “addicted” to illegal scam mail.
Rachel Aldighieri, the DMA’s director of communications and insight, first became aware of the programme when a producer contacted her asking the association for an interview. DMA executive director Chris Combemale was put forward.
The nature of the questions, and past experience trying to combat consumer and media criticism of junk mail, led the DMA to set up an award-winning crisis management plan to deal with the fallout from the programme.
“We would never go into something like this and think there was a good outcome. It’s very rare that a consumer-facing programme would be in our favour,” she admits.
The DMA is often called on to justify why businesses send out junk mail. “It’s a real challenge because everyone hates junk mail – I hate junk mail. People like to talk about it and moan about it,” she says.
The messages that the DMA put out as part of the crisis management were not new messages, explains Aldighieri, but its defence plan using social media helped it to reach a large audience.
With the help of PR agency Eulogy!, a social media strategy was developed to galvanise the support of DMA members and the wider business community.
Playing detective is one of the best ways to anticipate the kind of coverage brands can expect in the media, adds Aldighieri. “We’ve got contacts across many of the government bodies. So whenever there’s an issue that we think involves them as well, we’ll always speak to them about how the interview has gone and we’ll also speak to any DMA members who have been interviewed.”
She says: “We’ll try and gather as much information as possible as producers will never tell you the exact content of the programme.”
But although the media rarely takes notice of the difference between junk mail and advertising mail, Aldighieri argues that the Panorama coverage was extreme in the way it criticised the industry.
The difference between valid advertising mail (like a catalogue), junk mail (such as a takeaway leaflet) and scam mail (illegal post asking for money to claim a prize) was not fully distinguished in the programme, according to Aldighieri and other industry experts.
She explains: “In Panorama, they cut between some moaning about junk mail to Chris talking about the benefits of advertising mail. So, it looked like he was defending junk mail, even though he said in his answer – that they chose not to put in there – that we don’t support junk mail.
“He explained that junk mail damages the industry and that carpetbombing people is in no one’s interest. But that’s a message that takes the sensationalism out of the show.”
The DMA considers social media its best line of defence in refuting rumours, inaccuracies or negative stories. It was used in this instance to allow the organisation to clear up the difference between junk mail, advertising mail and scam mail.
While the DMA was fully prepared with its messages to defend the industry, Aldighieri admits that it was useful to have a PR agency on board to help work out how best to respond.
“Eulogy! was able to help us determine our [social media] strategy,” she says. “It came up with the hashtags #panorama, #junkmail, #panoramamail and monitored the response as the debate unfurled.”
The social media response also used a specially developed ‘toolkit’ that the DMA compiled to refute unfair or untrue statistics or figures. It featured various questions and answers that the DMA felt that the media and members’ customers could ask, along with reliable facts and figures.
“We sent that out 72 hours before so that it was close enough to the show that people would look at it, but gave them enough time to prepare,” Aldighieri adds.
The DMA’s proactive response also meant it called up a wide group of journalists that it expected to pick up on the BBC programme. “We knew that because it was a BBC programme, it would be pitched out to all of the BBC regional teams,” she says.
“For us, it was less about selling a story in to these journalists and more about flagging up that we’d be there should they want a comment. This led to securing eight live radio interviews, allowing the DMA to get its point of view across without being edited.”
A ‘war-room’ meeting with the DMA and Eulogy! was set up to monitor the coverage and social media response because, although the Twitter debate was going well during the show, at that point it wasn’t clear how the wider media would pick up on the story.
The defence plan worked, and rather than a barrage of negative coverage, there was no coverage outside of the BBC. And sometimes no publicity is the best outcome, according to Aldighieri.
“One of the biggest successes for us is that no other media picked it up. From a crisis management point of view, it’s not about column inches but about getting the media to understand and give the full story,” she adds.
And, while there was negative coverage watched by many households across the UK, being prepared meant there were no surprises.
Aldighieri explains: “We felt in control. In a crisis, feeling in control is really important. You’re not going to control social but at least you can have a strong influence, which you can’t have in [all]media.”
In general, social media has completely transformed the way the DMA now deals with negative coverage about the industry. This is in stark contrast to the way in which Aldighieri dealt with the ‘summer of discontent’ when she joined in 2006 as head of media relations.
Roger Annies, dubbed the anti-junk mail postman, was suspended by Royal Mail after telling people how to stop unwanted leaflets being posted through their letterboxes. This story “went huge” says Aldighieri, and ran in newspapers and broadcast media for about a month.
She says that she couldn’t quite believe the coverage sparked by such a story. Given that the only defence channel open to the organisation was the mainstream media, it was restricted in how easily it could put out its own messages.
“You’d speak to a journalist and give them all the facts and then we’d be lucky to get a line in at the end of the story, giving the other side of the coin. You’d feel almost cheated because you’d explain the story and explain that the DMA didn’t support junk mail either. But it just didn’t suit the agenda,” she notes.
Social media has revolutionised this process for the DMA. Aldighieri says even the ability to comment on stories online means that the organisation now has the ability to get its points across more openly and clearly than ever before.
Aldighieri admits that sometimes she wonders if the junk mail story has any more legs. With the deafening silence following the Panorama campaign, she hopes that people are bored of the story.
She is also optimistic that the work that the DMA is doing to educate the marketing industry about successful direct mailing tactics will mean less genuine junk mail and fewer media crises to deal with. That may be wishful thinking. But the DMA is ready and waiting to respond when the inevitable junk mail story rears its head again.
What went wrong?
Last July Panorama aired a programme called Why Hate Junk Mail? which asked whether junk mail simply existed to prop up the Royal Mail. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) was asked to contribute to the broadcast, with its executive director Chris Combemale doing a pre-recorded interview. It focused on scam mail, junk mail as well as advertising mail, but the DMA felt that the programme confused the issue by not differentiating between illegal scam mail, junk mail and targeted advertising mail.
What did the DMA do about it?
Its director of communications and insight, Rachel Aldighieri, and her team didn’t expect the industry to be portrayed in a favourable light despite the DMA’s contribution to the Panorama programme. It approached its members and other people that it thought had also contributed to the documentary to find out what they had said, and to make them aware that they would be able to respond to any media and customer enquires. A Q&A ‘toolkit’ was put together so that answers to a number of questions could be prepared. The association proactively called journalists to make it known that the DMA could comment on the Panorama programme. It worked with PR agency Eulogy! to prepare a social media strategy to respond to the criticism.
What else could they have done?
The DMA claims it is happy with its reponse – for which it won a Crisis Management award from the Public Relations Consultants Association in late 2011 – to acknowledge the way in which it handled the criticism the industry faced over so-called junk mail. But the association is aware that it needs to continue to focus on educating its members and the wider business community about how to produce successful targeted direct mail. This is vital to reduce the amount of complaints from consumers about poorly targeted mail and lessen the chance that there will be bad press coverage aimed at the direct mail industry.
The advent of social media means that the association is able to get its messages out to the business community and the media. The DMA’s main media focus is building relations with the business press. It recognises that consumer-facing press is not going to be interested in all of the DMA’s messages, but hopes that by building good relations with business journalism sector, it will be able to get its messages out first to the business community, and that these messages will eventually filter down to consumer journalists’ desks.
The DMA fightback: the results
55,779 people were reached by an organised Twitter debate, putting forward the Direct Marketing Assocation’s view by tweeting facts and figures in support of direct mail.
Eight radio stations interviewed industry spokespeople, enabling the DMA to broadcast its message around the country.
20 pieces of positive coverage resulted from the trade press…
…and the consumer press didn’t pick up the story, perhaps highlighting the success of the campaign more than anything else, because junk mail is such a contentious issue normally given wide coverage.
In defence of direct mail
Of advertising mail is recycled and represents 0.4% of the average household’s unrecycled waste, according to DMA figures.
Effectiveness of advertising mail
People bought something after receiving a mail order catalogue in the 12 months to June 2011,says the Mail Media Centre.
The amount of money that advertising mail generates in sales every year, according to the DMA.
Why companies are contacting customers via direct mail
Of BT customers prefer to be contacted by mail, compared with 20% who prefer to be contacted via email, according to Royal Mail research.
Of consumers like receiving special offers and vouchers through the post, according to a study by TNS and the British Market Research Bureau.