The Clear and Present Danger of an Email Mistake
One of my favorite films is Clear and Present Danger. Early in the film, there’s a good exchange between the president of the United States and his group of advisors who are meeting to discuss the ramifications of a lifelong friend of the president who was killed by a Colombian drug lord. The advisors, using conventional wisdom, suggest that the president distance himself as much as possible from his friend, who was just discovered to be laundering Colombian drug money. However, Jack Ryan, the newest advisor to the president, suggests a totally different approach. He recommends that when the press asks the president if he and this newly discovered criminal were friends, to say, “No, we were good friends.” If asked if they were good friends, the response should be “No, we were lifelong friends.” Ryan’s point was simple: “Give the press no place to go.”
During the last week of December, the New York Times crafted an email for a few hundred people who had cancelled their subscriptions, offering them a big discount on a 16-week subscription. Unfortunately, the Times sent this email to 8.6 million people instead. After discovering the mistake, the Times tweeted that they had never sent the email, but shortly thereafter corrected itself. To its credit, the Times honored the discount to anyone who responded, but only for a short while.
There are five lessons that all of us can learn from this episode:
- Mistakes like this are fairly easy to make with email and other digital tools, so expect they will happen.
- Plan for these mistakes by crafting policies about how you’ll respond as a company. Make sure every employee knows what the policy is, why the policy is in place, and to whom they can turn if they have questions about it.
- Don’t pretend you didn’t make the mistake. In an age of social media, denying your mistake will work—for about 10 minutes.
- To the extent possible, make sure you are the one that tells the world about your mistake first—if you don’t, there is a 100% certainty that someone else will discover it, tweet it to the remotest parts of the earth, and make a much bigger deal about it than it really is.
- Eat your mistakes and suffer the consequences to the extent you can. If that means you offered a discount in error, eat the cost and use that to your advantage. A Times article with the headline “We Screwed Up and Saved You a Million Dollars” would have taken the edge off the incident and might have generated a decent amount of goodwill.
In short, give the press—or the tweeters or bloggers or Facebook posters—no place to go.
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