Simon Hendery: Think twice before you hit send button

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Two weeks after sparking what it benignly describes as one of the fastest spreading internet stories of the year, the Great Marquee Co has taken itself out of self-imposed online purgatory.

When a staff member's email describing a potential client's wedding as cheap, nasty and tacky made front-page headlines last month, the Auckland business was forced to re-jig its homepage so visitors were greeted by a sombre, apologetic statement.

But now GMC's traditional home page, featuring a glamorous shot of a sample marquee with accompanying elegant music, is back.

The apologetic statement is still on the website but has been relegated to the "about us" section.

GMC is getting on with business, hoping to avoid any long-term damage to its reputation and brand.

Whether it does or not remains to be seen.

Unfortunately for the business, it is up against a world wide web that never forgets and is particularly adept at retaining and regurgitating the bizarre incidents that have caught the public's interest over time.

It seems to be the season for email embarrassments. Just ask Don Brash or law clerk Craig Dale, whose rejected email proposition to a female lawyer also made headlines when she circulated it far and wide under the subject line "loser alert".

Given email can be such a powerful weapon for destroying personal, business or political reputations, what can businesses do to protect themselves from its potential perils?

Many large companies buy software to monitor outbound emails for profanities or other damaging content.

However, Joe Telafici, a senior security expert with McAfee - one of the companies specialising in such software - said he doubted technology would have saved GMC from its particular plight.

"I think in this case, it's just a matter of bad manners which is something computers can't fix," he says.

To reduce the risk of damaging emails leaving the building, companies need to have policies and guidelines around sending emails.

"Humans are always the weakest link. If you don't have good policy for how humans behave, a lot of technological countermeasures will be only partially effective," Telafici says.

Rogan Mallon, a systems engineer with security vendor Symantec, says his company's software offers 49 "custom policies" that clients can activate to screen for everything from the sending of confidential files, human rights abuse, corporate compliance violations and even the emailing of CVs.

Bradley Anstis, director of product management for email security company Marshal, says he is surprised how many businesses, including GMC, don't take the simple step of adding an automatic disclaimer message to the bottom of outbound email.

While it may not help the public relations cause when things go wrong, it can offer some legal protection.

Security experts agree the "leakage" of confidential data or valuable corporate intellectual property, either deliberately or accidentally, is perceived as the main concern in the outbound email arena.

"The [email issues] that tend to make the headlines are the ones that make for good reading," says Mallon.

"But the ones that don't make the headlines often have a bigger financial impact on organisations, such as the loss of intellectual property and financial information."

Most of us have, probably, at some point regretted firing off an ill-advised message.

As a former IT support worker, Telafici is a veteran of taking phone and email abuse from frustrated customers.

"People will say things to you over the phone they will never say to your face and they will say things to you in email they wouldn't even say to you over the phone because there's that degree of separation that is somewhat dehumanising," he says.

"It's difficult to convey emotion in email and, as a result, people end up reacting to things that aren't there."

Neil Sherratt, whose company Bizibox specialises in email security, says it always pays to stop and consider the consequences if someone other than the intended recipient reads your email exchange.

"Think before you write. Think about what your message is, who the reader is and should the reader actually have the message in the first place," he says.

"Is the message appropriate to write? What if this was published in the newspaper?"

It is a suggestion GMC has already taken on board.

The apology statement on the company's website says: "Our advice to other customer service operations is to remember the customer is always right and also to think twice before hitting the send button."

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