A cautionary tale in pressing “send” too hastily:
Yesterday I was reading an article in PR Week about a sensitive email unintentionally sent to a Connecticut journalist. The flub? The email included yet-to-be-announced information about an upcoming, aggressive “reputation management” campaign designed to combat negative attention on crimes (murders, disappearances, etc.) that occur during cruises. And this while U.S. Congress takes up legislation to tighten safety and security requirements for the private cruise lines.
For a journalist, that’s about as good as gold. He proceeded to break the story, and in my opinion had no obligation not to, even when told by the PR person that it was an internal memo and should be “disregarded.”
The story imparts two beneficial lessons to us in the business of communications. The first: accountability of PR practitioners.
I found it interesting that the PR person’s quote in the PR Week article was:
“It is unfortunate that the journalist accidentally received the e-mail.”
Hmmmm…Deflecting and trying to shift accountability doesn’t exactly instill positive relationships with media or the public. A better way of handling the situation might have been to say,
“We regret accidentally sending the email to someone outside of the organization,” showing that you are taking responsibility and not just deflecting. In other words, "Hey! I messed up!"
PR people recognize that they are largely accountable for what they do and say on behalf of their employers. Think Scott McClellan and the recent tell-all book about the Bush White House. He’s been highly criticized for turning tail on the administration to sell books. Many that worked with him at the time say that he never questioned what he was told to say to the media, despite his own assertions that he was uncomfortable with the message he was relaying. Hindsight is 20/20 afterall.
The second lesson learned here is the importance of being ultra-careful when it comes to electronic communication. In this case, an email was accidentally blasted off to a newspaper reporter, but it’s certainly not limited to just email. Comments posted on online stories or blogs and Twitter updates should also be carefully disseminated.
Late last year there was a bit of a local explosion on privacy vs. transparency when it was revealed that a frequent commenter (username “afternoondelight”) on the Post and Courier’s online stories was actually a staffer in the solicitor’s office, who was facing a tough re-election campaign at the time. The comments ranged from the generally offensive, to racially charged, to unapologetic favoritism for his boss. While the staffer assumed that he’d remain anonymous in his rants, the Post and Courier site details that comments concerning stories "will not be considered confidential." Whoops.
So, while e-communications are extremely valuable to PR and marketing and must be utilized, be sure to tread lightly in the online communications world, and think before you click.