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Anthrax Scare

November 01, 2001|By Michael Stroh and Tom Pelton | Michael Stroh and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Need to give Ben Cardin a piece of your mind?

These days you're more likely to reach Baltimore's Democratic congressman with a PC than a pen. Like many legislators, Cardin hasn't seen the mailman in his Washington office for nearly three weeks.

"E-mail has become the principal way - and for many people the only way - to communicate," says Cardin, who is wired into his office e-mail through his new BlackBerry pager. "If we can't get the views of our constituents, we can't function."

From Capitol Hill to Hollywood, use of electronic mail and faxes is surging as mailroom closures and fears over poisoned letters continue to spread.

While it might be boosting Internet traffic, the mail scare has been a blow to some businesses in the Washington area and to the U.S. Postal Service, already stung by consumer defections to e-mail and the Internet.

"The days of envelopes will be long gone if this war keeps going on as it has," says David Parran, general manager of Dynamic Mail Services in Washington.

Parran's firm, which prints and mails fliers, fund-raising letters and brochures, has laid off three-quarters of its staff as the result of anthrax turmoil and the Postal Service's anthrax-contaminated Brentwood processing center being closed.

Sales at ASL Business and Mailing Services in Washington were off 60 percent in October, says manager Adrianne Lucke. "Instead of getting a tub full of mail every day from the post office," she says, "we are getting only a small handful."

Public relations firms, an industry that also relies heavily on the mail, are struggling to cope. The biggest dilemma: how best to reach spooked media outlets, a few of which have been the target of anthrax mailings.

Pingel Blanchard Schaerfer, a PR firm in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is scrapping plans to blitz 300 or so prospective clients with its biannual come-on: A catchy card wrapped in an ominous all-black envelope with no return address.

Although one client joked that anthrax powder might show up better on ebony, the firm decided to hold off. "Who is going to open an unmarked black envelope?" says Lynaia Lutes. "They might call the FBI."

The firm plans to turn the pitch into an e-card and send it over the Internet.

But not everything can be sent over the wires. To ensure that 50 review copies of her client's new historical novel get seen by magazine editors, publicist Marika Flatt bought hand stamps with the firm's phone number to plaster on the outside of each package.

Each editor, she says, will get an e-mail advising that the book package is legit.

"We know that a lot of mail isn't being opened now," says Flatt, national media director at Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists in Austin, Texas. "We have to make sure these packages aren't just being thrown away."

Some media outlets don't want anything to do with some kinds of surface mail and have gone entirely electronic.

Last weekend National Public Radio, whose mail normally goes through the shuttered Brentwood facility, asked listeners to communicate either by e-mail or fax, says spokeswoman Gretchen Michael.

ABC's Good Morning America and game shows such as Wheel of Fortune also have encouraged electronic contact.

Anthrax fears have touched even fourth-graders at New Jersey's Kingwood Township School, whose mail travels through the same Trenton sorting facility as the anthrax-laced letters to Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC News. For the first time in five years, the students will correspond with their pen pals at Meadow Lane School in Chicago by e-mail or fax. Photos and such go UPS.

In Hollywood, nervous celebrities - no strangers to strange mail - are beseeching fans to express their adulation electronically or via post card. Spooked, perhaps, by the Jennifer Lopez fan letter suspected of delivering a fatal dose of anthrax to a photo editor at tabloid publisher American Media in Florida.

Rather than just dump sacks of fan mail, Warner Brothers, whose hit shows include Friends, ER and The West Wing, now sends back fan mail with a sticker directing fans to e-mail. Why? "I don't want to get into it," says spokesman Scott Rowe. "It's obvious."

But nowhere has e-mail become more important than the nation's capital, where many government staffers haven't seen the mailman for weeks.

"We don't get anything in or out," says M. Pope Barrow, who heads the Office of the Legislative Counsel for the House of Representatives.

Barrow, whose staff of 35 lawyers works with legislators to draft bills, says his office is communicating almost exclusively by computer. Although the office has long used e-mail to deliver draft bills, "we just ratcheted it up," he says, adding: "Our fax machines are just on fire."

Legislators and staffers, meanwhile, scurry about with BlackBerry pagers clipped to their belts. The pagers, handed out by House leaders in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have become as essential to many on the Hill as a ready sound bite.

The souped-up pagers can swap e-mail and send faxes. Cardin scans an e-mail from the House leaders offering the daily rundown of where anthrax spores have turned up, what's open and what's shut down.

Government agencies have been slouching toward cyberspace for years, but the mail attacks have jump-started the effort.

Both the Social Security and Veterans administrations are encouraging their constituents to switch to electronic direct deposits if people are worried about anthrax or delays in postal service.

But even cyberspace might not be a permanent solution.

"The big question is when do they figure out how to disrupt that," says Barrow. "What happens when the Internet gets blown up?"

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