7 Ways To Avoid PR Disaster By Email

In public relations, among other lines of work, things move fast, and rapid-fire communications is the only way to keep up. As a consequence, we’ve probably all said things in emails or texts that we shouldn’t have, or contacted the wrong person by mistake. I once sent an email about how to handle a somewhat finicky client intended for staff to the client herself. (Luckily it was limited to neutral information, but I always look twice now before pressing send.)

These mistakes are nearly always embarrassing and occasionally hilarious, adding to a social cottage industry around autocorrect fails, typos, and errant texts. But sometimes the results are serious.  The most recent casualty is Democratic National Committee chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who resigned after a wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails showed she favored Clinton.

The DNC dump was the result of a hack, not human error, yet it’s a scary reminder of what we email on a regular basis. Just last month, an attorney helping former NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel fight domestic violence charges thought he was sending a text to his co-counsel when he expressed concerns that Manziel was back on drugs and his plea deal could be jeopardized. He sent the text instead to an Associated Press reporter. Oof.

Yet something similar happened to Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks earlier this year. She meant to email an RNC researcher about Clinton oppo research and instead sent the missive to a Politico reporter with the same last name. Blame autofill.
Such public mistakes are rare, but they show that we’d all be better off if we used email and texting more judiciously. The best advice, of course, is the adage that you should send something you wouldn’t want to see posted or published. Here are some other practical ways to minimize the risk of an email or text disaster.

Don’t use reply all. I almost never use it outside of internal emails. It’s worth the extra keystrokes to hit reply and manually add anyone else as a cc. Of course this isn’t practical when responding to large groups, but why reply back to a large group anyway? There’s nearly always a better way to weigh in.

Check out delay send. It’s worth activating a delay send email feature (offered by most providers), even if the delay is for just a few minutes. It’s also useful to build in a pause of several hours when sending non-urgent work-related emails late at night or over a weekend, so staff don’t feel unduly pressured. Some PR agency people like to send late-night client emails to show their dedication, but in many circumstances it can come off as unprofessional. And those emails are the most likely to be buried by the next morning.

Never use bcc in email. To me, it’s always risky, because if the person being blind copied doesn’t look carefully, he could respond openly and embarrass the sender. Take the extra step and forward instead.

Don’t reply in the heat of the moment. Replying emotionally is tempting, but it’s never a good idea. If you must, go ahead and draft that email, but save it instead of sending. Wait 24 hours and then send if you still feel you must. Like Marijane, I have a draft folder full of unsent emails, and most are better left that way.

Organize and separate sensitive contacts. It’s helpful to use a system that separates important or sensitive contacts like a boss, in-law, or ex-significant-other. Or, you can use an app that delays or requires an extra step for only those contacts for both emailing and texting.

Check out “unsend” apps. Most people know that gmail offers a delay function that lets you catch errant emails within a few minutes after sending. But there are also apps that work to “undo” accidental (or inebriated) texts and even remove them from the recipient’s phone.

Don’t use work email for personal stuff. And if you do, delete it from both your inbox and your sent folder (which few people think about), and be sure to empty your trash folder. Any employer who has gone through an ex-staffer’s emails after his departure can tell you there’s always something that you wish you had never seen. (At my previous agency, the IT manager found a digital trail of kinky porn and explicit emails about other staffers on a fired employee’s desktop. I still feel uncomfortable when I run into this person.)

So, what do you do, when, despite best efforts, the bad email or text goes out anyway? Typically we have two choices: convey a swift and sincere apology; or, laugh about it. For most email disasters, the best remedy involves a bit of both.

The Best PR Moves Of 2010

This year brought well-publicized disasters, misbehaving celebrities, and corporate goofs. But, which individuals and companies communicated most skillfully during 2010? Here are our nominees.

Wikileaks. Whether Julian Assange is a hero or a “high-tech terrorist” depends on your point of view. But in 2010 Wikileaks perfected a media relations strategy for maximum impact for the release of thousands of  leaked diplomatic cables. Previously, Wikileaks had either trickled out its materials too gradually, or overwhelmed the media with an overlarge outpouring of classified information. But, in November, it seemed to get things just right. Its strategy was simple:  simultaneous publication of the leaked materials by five highly credible news organizations. The result was domination of news headlines for days.

Jon Stewart. Only Stewart could draw over 250,000 to a rally that started as a joke. Not only did his “Rally to Restore Sanity” beat Glenn Beck’s crowd by a surprising margin, but this year, Stewart showed he can do what no one else seems to be able to — bust legislative gridlock. His public shaming of the senators blocking the passage of the 9/11 first responders bill actually got the bill through. It earned him acknowledgement from the White House and a comparison to broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow in a glowing New York Times piece. Stewart still insists he’s not political, but his influence is formidable. This guy really gets things done. Jon Stewart in 2012?

The Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, the Tea Party was able to cool some serious internal divisions to speak out with one voice. Despite some candidates who landed in hot water (“I’m not a witch” will live in PR infamy), most of the party’s key players spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. More importantly, its message was never diluted. A full-strength focus on government spending brought the party credibility and congressional seats.

The Chilean government. Its flawless handling of the rescue of 33 miners showed not just leadership on the part of  Sebastian Pinera and his government, but real storytelling genius and media relations savvy. The final rescue scenario was better than any mini-series, complete with a happy ending.

Gap. Yes, I know its logo fiasco looked like a bad fit and a PR blunder, but the company’s ultimate decision to return to the original iconic identity made it more relevant than it’s been in years, at least to a narrow slice of influentials. Not a model PR campaign, but a good example of turning bad publicity into good will.

Conan O’Brien. He started the year by walking away from one of the most coveted gigs in television, and agreeing to a seven-month exile before the premiere of his new show on…basic cable? But Team Coco made clever use of the hiatus. Their social media strategy was genius. His hilarious Twitter feed was vintage Conan, while kicking off a string of updates that kept him in front of fans. Coverage from his “Legally Prohibited” comedy tour ensured his relevance until the debut of his third act this September.

JetBlue. 2010 was a tough year for travel companies. Start with a grounded economy, add higher fares and fewer services, throw in an eruption from an unpronounceable volcano, and top it off with a security controversy. JetBlue not only came out on top again in passenger surveys, but it handled flight attendant Steven Slater’s unexpected, and highly publicized, exit from the job with PR savvy and typical JetBlue cool.

Facebook. Despite another privacy crisis in 2010, Facebook turned the potential reputation nightmare of the unflattering film “The Social Network” into an opportunity for a charm offensive on the part of founder Mark Zuckerberg. Reaching 500 million members and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year isn’t such a bad way to close out 2010.

Next up: Worst PR Moves of 2010.