The White House Email Controversy: Great PR for Permission

Posted by Stephanie Miller on

Stephanie Miller, email marketing expert
By Stephanie Miller
VP, Global Market Development

The brouhaha over the reports that some Americans felt the email messages the White House sent them about health care reform were spam has the nice side effect of generating some great PR for permission. Isn’t it lovely to see politicians, government workers and Fox News broadcasters up in arms over the fact that some people may be on the file but not have actually signed up for White House emails (depending on your politics, you may see different motives, but that’s a different matter)? (Honestly, it amounts to the same thing if these citizens did indeed sign up, but just don’t remember.) Bottom line: Permission matters in email marketing.

Now the White House doesn’t seem to have done anything terribly egregious by email marketing practice: It sent informative messages to people affected by health care reform. Lots of marketers send lots of email messages that have varied levels of value to subscribers. The White House did not do anything illegal. Pundits both inside and outside the email industry have made much of the fact that the White House, government agencies and nonprofits are exempt from CAN SPAM and “hey is that fair??” but it’s a moot point. The US federal CAN SPAM law does not require permission. We may be the only country in the world that has such a lenient permission standard. (Remember, please always check with legal counsel on any legal or privacy question.). Certainly a lot of folks who received the email messages were happy to hear an update from their President.

However, we email marketers live in a world where even a small number of complainers can get all of our messages blocked by the ISPs, even if it doesn’t land us on Fox News. What this incident proves – again – is that permission is in the eye of the beholder. We must have a high standard for permission and relevancy and value if we want to keep the email channel open, viable and profitable. I guess we are seeing the political equivalent of that! And in the meantime, it was nice to hear so many people from new quarters expound the benefits of actually limiting your email marketing to those who actually said they wanted it.

To catch up on the story, here are a few links:

  • Ecommerce Times (a very unemotional account of the back story)
  • Gawker (tongue in cheek coverage, with some great comments)
  • Fox News video (a very gleeful report on the fact that the White House actually responded to their accusations)


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