Timing Really Is Everything
The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: "Direct mail should be scrupulously honest."
In case you don't know, here's the skinny. First, the use of the word "Census" on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer. Apparently, there had been some concern that people would mistake these efforts for the big Census Bureau mailing that was due to drop. Then, someone who actually had that complaint called the number on the RNC's donation form, only to discover that it was for a phone sex line. Coming on the heels of news about lavish RNC spending, it's been a tough few weeks for the party.
It's easy to dismiss the second problem as merely a vendor mistake, one that appeared on only some of the mailings. It's also easy to brush aside criticism of using "Census" on the outer. After all, it's legal — it had passed muster with the USPS. And, it doesn't really look like the Census mailer. It's pretty obvious when opened that it's just another issues poll, with leading questions, and a request for money. There's nothing wrong with that, both parties have been mailing surveys for many years.
But it illustrates a bigger problem. A great national political party shouldn't rely on a gimmick, like putting "Census", or the IRS form — like "(2009) Return Enclosed" on the outer envelope to get someone to open it. Seriously, no one at the RNC thought this through, and saw this bad publicity coming? And, given how some of the Republican base feels about the Census, and especially, the IRS, it's an especially puzzling choice of a teaser.
Twenty-five years ago, in the newsletter Who's Mailing What!, Roger Craver wrote that to have a successful direct mail appeal, the "donors of principle," the heart of any political organization, must be motivated by writing that conveys mission, selectivity, urgent need and effectiveness. The GOP was way ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard for decades, but as shown in the 2008 presidential race, not anymore. It's going to be very interesting to see how both parties will energize the faithful in this election year.