Kremlin on the Potomac: Postal Service Communications

Readers old enough to remember the Soviet Union also remember how skilled it was at saying nothing – about anything – no matter what.  If something happened, regardless of whether it was visible to the outside world, it simply wasn’t acknowledged.  A natural disaster?  Never happened.  The disappearance of an important figure?  He’s fine.  A bomber crash into a village?  No bomber, nothing happened.

If outsiders posed a question about any event, the basic answer, if there was one, was denial, deflection, or obfuscation.  The Soviets never admitted to anything going wrong, to any internal failures, or to any event or condition that might break the illusion they so ardently projected or that might provide an outsider a peek into what’s really going on.

Publicly, the West was shown the annual May Day parade of armaments, soldiers, and happy peasants, all marching in front of the reviewing stand on Lenin’s tomb, where the leaders of the Soviet Union stood, waving stiffly.

Taking a page

To many in the mailing community, the Postal Service has apparently been reading the USSR Guide to Communications, or whatever publication the Soviets had that codified its policies and methods for revealing as little as possible and making what it did reveal minimally informative.

The best example of how well the agency studied and learned would be its record of communication – or the lack of it – over the nearly one year since the pandemic set in.  Even though it was obvious to everyone that the Postal Service was having problems moving and delivering mail, it said little about them or its remedial plans.  When political activists accused the agency (particularly its then-new PMG) of making operational changes to undermine the election, it said nothing.  When the tidal wave of packages swept through postal facilities, the consequences on processing operations and delivery were barely acknowledged.

The popular media became the platform for the postal clerks union to broadcast its opinions about postal management, the conditions in postal facilities, and the agency’s failures to serve the American public.  In response, the Postal Service said nothing; media outlets were turned away, letting the postal unions and craft employees control the story.

As the added mail and, especially, parcel volume of the holiday season amplified the agency’s problems, it belatedly acknowledged that service delays were likely.  It shared little about facility conditions until complaints from logistics service providers drew attention to protracted drop shipment unloading delays. In turn, those led to broader industry questions about the overall condition of, and delays in, the postal processing and delivery network.  Conference calls among a small workgroup swelled to Zoom calls attended by hundreds, but the Postal Service’s official pravda remained instinctively resistant to candor, indifferent to what callers knew and could see.

Postal representatives assigned to the calls would dutifully provide a list of delays and facilities failing to meet operating plans, and industry representatives would quickly note additional facilities where delays were reported.  It seemed clear to callers that USPS HQ either wasn’t getting the full story from the field, or that it was trying to minimize negative news, perhaps hoping that callers didn’t already know what was going on.

Earlier this month, those calls were ended because the USPS felt there no longer were significant problems (or, at least, none they wanted to discuss further).  Another source for facility condition information was promised instead, but its content and availability remain undefined. 

The Supreme Soviet

The latest public meeting of the postal Supreme Soviet – the USPS Board of Governors – continued the Soviet-style communications.  In prepared remarks, the Postmaster General recited the challenges facing the agency – absenteeism, transportation, parcels – then credited the steps taken to deal with the situation over the holidays: “All in all, we threw everything we had at it.”  Continuing, he offered some numbers describing the seasonal workload, then pivoted to praise what a great job the USPS did: “our system got mail and packages to our delivery units – it got delivered within a day over 99% of the time.  An astounding accomplishment... .”

What commercial mailers may find astounding is the gulf between the picture the USPS seeks to present and what its customers are seeing and experiencing.  The politburo's apparent communication policy seems to be to say as little as possible about anything, thus to avoid drawing attention – from the industry, Congress, or the public – and thus to befog visibility of facility congestion and delayed mail.

USPS executives could not avoid admitting to the governors that service had become abysmal; the numbers were what they were, but if anyone listening to the Board meeting had hoped for a dramatic announcement of specific corrective steps to restore service soon, they were disappointed.

Adding a dash of salt to the wound, the agency released quarterly service scores later that day that revealed less data than previous reports.  Though it issued granular data weekly when under court order, the Soviet communications censors at USPS HQ apparently decided to release far less once they could.  If no-one sees the bad numbers, the apparatchik must have thought, they won’t be called on the carpet for what the data represents, or if they report only high-level aggregated data, the really bad numbers won’t be visible. 

Either way, all the bad service mailers complain about?  It really didn’t happen.  Spasibo, tovarishch.


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