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 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
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
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
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?
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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