Is Your Email Memo Safe?

What’s internal is usually external when it comes to corporate announcements, especially those concerning a crisis. Most PR and HR departments understand this and “write once” when it comes to announcing a change or responding to a crisis. What about email? When you email a colleague about something confidential, you expect it to remain between the two of you, right? Wrong, in my opinion. Most of the time, email communications is like talking on the phone to someone – you don’t expect your phones to be tapped. But if you are communicating about a confidential matter that has public ramifications, be careful. Case in point is the latest news coming out of Toyota.

Irv Miller, who was group vp for environmental and public affairs, in the days leading up to the January recall announcement wrote his colleagues in an email: “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean.”  Miller was counseling the C-suite to be more transparent while revealing quite a lot about Toyota‘s crisis in that one email. The Associated Press, in reviewing papers released to government investigators, uncovered other communications failures, such as when another corporate communications exec at Toyota wrote an email to his PR colleague that , “We should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed.”

In reaction to these emails, Toyota said it doesn’t comment on internal communications and conceded that its communication during this time period was in need of repair and it will try to be more transparent.

Would it have been better if Toyota’s communications team met in a board room or at a cafe and discussed the need to “come clean” and never put it in writing? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Because once it’s written, it is writ in the public mind once discovered. And that’s why the media is writing about this latest email mess from Toyota.  The media will identify the sound bites in the email memo (such as I’ve done above) and a reader will latch on to the most negative aspect of the bite, and form a quick, probably negative opinion.

We can all relate to email snafus, especially in the rush to convey a message efficiently, quickly and to multiple audiences. So, before you hit “send,” shift those mental gears, re-read your email and make sure your words won’t be held against you or your organization someday.

Diane Schwartz

  • Danny

    This is a great observation. While most of us see e-mail as a secure one-way communication line between you and the receiver, the fact of the matter is that it is not entirely secure. Many people have seen an e-mail with sensitive subject matter get passed around the office, as information meant for one person quickly becomes common knowledge. This is a great lesson for those that deal with crisis communications and other sensitive information. If the person you wish to speak with is down the hall, why not simply have a face-to-face conversation with them, instead of running the risk that the information will leak?