E-Mail Optimization for the Federal Government

From the roof of the Heywood Building on September 11, 2001, 18 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center (WTC), members of my staff watched in horror as a second aircraft crashed into the south tower. For us and all other Americans, images of the collapsing structures will be forever etched in our brains. So would the actions taken over the next several hours and days.

The release of “The 9/11 Commission Report” resurrects many memories. Chaos, anger, and hysteria, followed by unity, purpose, and planning. I remember meeting with our team to learn if we had friends or loved ones at the WTC. Several did. After agonizing hours of fruitless telephone calls, thankfully we were able to assure all directly connected to us were safe.

New York was in communications lockdown. Cell phones were useless. Landlines were jammed or down. We huddled in the conference room watching the news report the tragic details. We all felt so frustrated, trapped, isolated, and fearful. Never before had a lack of a communications network been so real to all of us. For most, one network continued to work throughout the dark hours and days of September 11; many connected via email on their PDAs. E-mail worked.

In the aftermath of tragedy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established to help prevent terrorist attacks within the U.S. and protect Americans. Since its establishment, we’ve seen countless efforts dedicated to a single purpose: “A Better Prepared America.” Efforts include public service announcements, press releases, and establishing the Ready.gov site, dedicated to informing, educating, and preparing Americans for the worst.

In all the aforementioned attempts to better prepare and communicate with Americans, one medium is noticeably absent: email. Given email served as the only reliable method to communicate with family, friends, and loved ones that dark day, it’s surprising. E-mail offers government officials an opportunity to further optimize efforts to communicate with the American public by embracing an essential, reliable communications technology.

An early warning or alert system delivered via email to the public should be an essential element of any DHS communications strategy. How much does the average citizen really know about work done by the DHS? My guess is not much.

My team and I devised a plan to build an email communications framework for the DHS. The program includes development and aggressive promotion of an online email registration program for the DHS early-warning alert program. At this site, citizens would register to receive weekly and emergency email alerts from the DHS that would provide details on the work being done throughout the country to counter terrorism.

Note: The Office of Homeland Security (which is separate from DHS), offers email alerts but doesn’t actively promote them.

Through relevant targeting and segmenting of the list, the DHS could also provide breaking news alerts and early warning notifications to specific regions or Zip Codes based on credible evidence of heightened risk. For example, Boston and NYC residents could receive updates and alerts with information surrounding the political conventions.

Imagine a program that could, based on the latest intelligence, deliver updated information on security developments to millions of citizens in real time. The program would expand the “See Something, Say Something” initiative to empower citizen involvement across all media, including the Web and email.

Seems intuitive and relatively straightforward to many, but our government is complex. Change can be a long, arduous process, particularly in an election year. Yet email can play an important role in optimizing the government’s relationship with citizens, particularly as it relates to the DHS and current threats.

Effective, relevant, timely communications can play a central role in the government’s relationship-building and education efforts with Americans. E-mail will emerge as a central component of the communication mix between the government and its citizens. Americans will be better prepared and informed through email in years to come.

I’m encouraged by the progress and power we’ve seen with the Web’s and email’s influence on the political process and fundraising efforts. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the powers that be and will facilitate future government use of email over the next decade.

I’m intrigued by some recent reports I’ve seen here on ClickZ. ClickZ Stats highlighted the Center for Digital Government’s report, which names the top 10 most digitally advanced state governments in the nation. The report spotlights the power of technology in government. It shines a light on state governments that proactively embrace technology by developing digital-technology best practices and policies to better communicate and serve citizens.

For those willing to peruse the 9/11 report’s almost 600 pages, the need is clear. The report chastises us for a lack of imagination, communication, and creative thinking regarding our security. Perhaps the folks at the Center for Digital Government can help us harness technology’s promise to make progress on the communication front. What could be a more efficient channel than email to get the message to millions of people? Can that money be better spent on improved security, intelligence, and prevention efforts?

I’ve talked to government officials about my September 11 experiences and the role email played that day. I’ve talked about what email can do to help prevent more disasters. I’ve envisioned ways in which email can be leveraged in efforts to better educate America. I decided to test my hypothesis that Americans are interested in receiving messages that deal with homeland security issues.

Just last week, our creative team produced an email with the faces of the top 10 most-wanted terrorists from the FBI’s wanted list. Working with our list department, we rented a relatively small list of permission-based email addresses from various reputable list managers. The subject line read, “Public Service Announcement — Help us catch these terrorists.”

Results exceeded expectations. Within 24 hours, the email received double-digit open rates and yielded a nearly 2 percent CTR to existing government Web sites where visitors could provide information and insight into the pursuit of these individuals. Imagine the response a campaign of 10 to 20 million addresses could have on better informing, educating, and preparing the public. The power of the medium once again shines with possibilities.

Perhaps the candidates will hear the call. Perhaps those who leveraged the medium to connect and communicate with voters will seize the opportunity. Perhaps they’ll use knowledge from this year’s elections to further embrace technology. Time will tell.

The view from our office windows these days is different; we’ve moved across town. But we vividly remember that fateful day that changed us forever. Isn’t it time we tapped the best minds in technology and politics to build a system that truly provides an opportunity to improve communications that might help avoid another horrific day?

Sign me up.

Till next time,

Al D.

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