From High-Tech Leader to President O-Spamma–What Happened?

Before he sat in the Oval Office, Barack Obama promised the world a high-tech, pro-science presidency. And over the last weeks his promise has come true: The Administration has embraced the high-tech world of spamming.

Before he sat in the Oval Office, Barack Obama promised the world a high-tech, pro-science presidency. And over the last weeks his promise has come true: The Administration has embraced the high-tech world of spamming.

Obama with Spam

Or is that really the low-tech, sleazy technique of sending out unsolicited propaganda using the high-tech medium of email? However you classify spam, the situation the White House finds itself in is pretty simple: Last week Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod pushed “send” on an email that set out the Administration’s current thinking about health-care reform, but he made an elementary mistake–lots of the recipients didn’t ask to be contacted. Thousands of them felt this way, in fact, and the affair has blown up to the point it’s even earned the inevitable title Spamgate. How did the fabulous Brand Obama make such a newbie move?

Was it really a mistake?

Let’s start by assuming it was, and ask instead how did so many incorrect email addresses get added to a public distribution list? It’s possibly as simple as a single keystroke–the White House has a “for contact” email list that contains data for people who’ve been asked to be contacted via email, and another list for a totally different purpose, such as email addresses associated with completely different PR. Adding both lists to the “send to” box is a pretty easy mistake to make, particularly if you’re stuck using an embarrassingly out-of date White House PC. And remember the number of emails you’ve incorrectly sent to people at the office?

It’s also possible that people who were keen to get others involved with the President’s messages service signed up their friends without permission–responding to a request the White House itself makes in its public-facing emails, which ask you to get your friends involved.

Both options are unfortunate, but both are essentially an innocent mistake.


It was deliberate: Business is Business

Over at Business Insider, they’re quoting Zain Raj, CEO of Havas’ Euro RSCG Discovery (a marketing/analytics firm) as saying the administration knew exactly what it was doing. “[The Administration] has become so arrogant about the amount of trust and credibility they have with their constituents, they think they can take advantage,” is how he argues it. Essentially he’s saying that the tight PR that got Obama elected was just that–tight PR. Now it’s down to business, and some of those marketing professionals have gone away, the White House’s PR management has relaxed somewhat and the President’s people are relying on the might of an email from the White House to ride over any controversy.

In fact, the DNC (and likely the RNC too) has a history of oversharing the names on its emailing lists. Anyone who’s signed up in support of one candidate knows that it you begin receiving emails from several other lists shortly thereafter. [Eds note: I signed up for two Obama mailing lists originally, and have since unsubscribed from six other ones–yet I’m still receiving unwanted email from various organizations.]

Was it actually spam?

BusinessInsider also quotes Stuart Ingis, a partner at Venable LLP as saying, “If elected officials can’t communicate with the public through whatever channel to make their case on important issues, that’s a real problem for our democracy.” He also notes that the email in question didn’t violate the CAN-SPAM anti-spam law because “that applies to commercial email and this isn’t commercial email. It’s not violating any laws.”

This whole argument is dumb: By the same measuring stick if the Administration wanted to drive around at 4am announcing its unsolicited message over a bull-horn turned up to 11, or to burn its news onto the moon with a giant laser, it should be allowed to do so and be excused violating noise-abatement laws or international weapons treaties because it’s all for “democracy.” Those two examples are deliberately ridiculous, but they illustrate a point–the crux is unsolicited attention. Yes, the government is a slightly different entity to a business, but it shouldn’t see itself as king of all its people–unsolicited mail is unsolicited mail, no matter who it comes from. It’s spam. Ingis’s point is particularly odd, since Venable is a law firm that specializes in consumer-protection and advertising–you’d suspect that company would have genuine consumer protection at the top of its priorities?


Did the Administration fess-up?

Nope, and that’s actually the biggest problem here. Apparently all its done since Spamgate is to issue a half-hearted apology that blamed “outside groups of all stripes” for adding people’s email addresses to its email list for malicious purposes. While that’s possible–*ahem* Republican Party stooges–it’s arguable the Administration should’ve managed its public email lists more carefully.

The biggest shame is that this has happened for an email about health care reform–a vitally important issue that really needs governmental attention. It’s a topic that’s seen all sorts of ludicrous side-lining of the main discussion (Stephen Hawking and death lists, anyone?) and Spamgate is a terrible thing that does nothing to push the debate forward.

Come on, guys–where’s that pro-future, high-tech spirit? The thing to do would be to admit your mistake–whether it was an accident, or whether the Administration’s IT and marketing whizzes dropped the ball on managing the email distribution list (on a topic they already knew would be controversial)–you should confess. And promise it won’t happen again, because no one, at all, ever, anywhere likes Spam.

[via BusinessInsider]


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.