23 March 2018
Should e-mails be formal or chatty? Should you start with 'Dear Sir' or 'Hi there'? Do normal grammatical standards apply? A plethora of styles and ideas divide opinion. But there is one thing upon which most of us agree, and that is that a private e-mail should remain a private e-mail. However, a careless hand, a reckless slip, an unintentional CC or even an intended BCC can see that private e-mail published far more widely than anticipated — even, as we have seen in the case of the Gove e-mail, as national front page news. Amidst all the noise of the Conservative Party leadership contest, journalist Sarah Vine quietly wrote a private e-mail to her husband, Justice Secretary and (until then) seeming Boris Johnson backer, Michael Gove and his advisers. The e-mail urged him to be 'his stubborn best' and to seek assurances from Bo-Jo in order to guarantee her hubbie's backing for the Tory party leadership. But Ms Vine/Mrs Gove mistakenly copied her e-mail to a member of the public with the same name as one of her husband's advisers. And the rest, as they say, will be history… There are enough column inches in today's newspapers (inches? yards more like) setting out the consequences of this e-mail faux pas: a red-faced Gove may be seen as subject to backseat political driving by the missus; and the until then front-runner Boris, has bowed out equally red-faced (but willingly in light of the size of the job ahead? or reluctantly in light of the loss of support of Gove as backer?) from the leadership race. The embarrassment caused all round by this ostensibly domestic act may be dwarfed by the consequences – good or bad? – for the future of the Tory party (and the future of the country; and the future of our relationship with Europe etc etc…) This is a timely reminder of the damage that publications can do, not just substantive publications intended for the world at large, but off-the-cuff, seeming private publications, intended for the consumption of one, but in reality serving as a feast – or unappetising fodder – for many. The Gove e-mail was not 'just a piece of (electronic) paper'. It was not just the equivalent of a chat over the coffee machine. An e-mail is a permanent publication that once sent is out of the control of the sender. The pin pulled out by the hand that wrote it, an e-mail is a grenade-like incendiary which can cause untold and unexpected damage. So take care of your e-mails. If you are reckless with them they can blow you up in your own face, causing reputational damage and ripping your own privacy to pieces, as well as harming others. Top tips for protecting yourself online:
- Check all e-mail recipients before sending an e-mail — and then check again. For a long and potentially contentious e-mail or reply, remove the intended names and only reinsert them when you are ready and are clear to whom it is being sent.
- Speed is not of the essence. Re-read your e-mail with fresh eyes and a clear head; a double-take could save your reputation and avoid liability.
- Beware forwarding long e-mail strings where dangers may lurk buried deep within. Recipients can change during the forwarding of a string, and content be added without your knowledge. Check the entire string that you are forwarding before sending it on, or start a new chain if in doubt.
- An e-mail is not a chat over the coffee machine; and it is not the place for a hot-headed response. It is a permanent publication that can give rise to a claim in defamation by a third party. Check your content to avoid threats or action.
- At the click of a mouse an e-mail containing private and confidential information can be forwarded – by design or my mistake – to unintended recipients. Don't start the leak yourself, unintended or otherwise, unless you are prepared for the consequences; it could lead to an all-out flood.
- Send is not your friend. Make time to come back to a potentially contentious e-mail after a moment or two of reflection and imagine your e-mail being read out in court or featured on the front page of a national newspaper. Ask yourself, is that really what I want to say and how I want to say it?