Increasingly, our communication takes place online – via pixel and text and upload. I’m sure all have heard this a million times, but I add my voice to the analog multitude:communicate discreetly. Oh goodness me, please, please communicate discreetly.
From examples as costly and major as the implosion of mega-conglomerate-law-firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, to the Twitter debacle of Justine Sacco, we all have to watch what we say and how we say it. Our written words, whether in email or otherwise, will live forever.
Justine Sacco: if it’s funny to you, is it offensive to someone else? Remember Justine Sacco? She posted a snarky racist tweet on the way to meet her family in South Africa. When she got on the plane, she had 170 Twitter followers. For eleven hours, she was offline. When she disembarked in Cape Town, her tweet had been re-tweeted bazillions of times, she had brought shame on her family, and she had been fired from her job. Her best friend deleted her account, but it made no difference – the damage had been done.
Dewey LeBoeuf: emails hastened their demise. This mega-conglomerate-law-firm, the unhappy marriage of Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, failed for so many reasons it’s hard to count them all. However, indiscreet communication was key to its failure. Some key partners sent insulting or crude emails naming others and suffered no adverse consequences; other partners learned via email that their colleagues received sizable financial guarantees which were unrelated to actual earnings. Still other emails reflected that marketing information on earnings were grossly inflated, and financial information and invoices were falsified. This led to a loss of confidence in management, and may have led some lawyers to leak information to the media. It also contributed to defections, instability, and layoffs, and ultimately to bankruptcy. Worse yet, the Manhattan District Attorney filed criminal charges against the firm’s chairman, executive director, and chief financial officer of falsifying business records, conspiracy, securities fraud, and other charges. The incriminating emails were at least part of the information upon which charges were based. As of the time of this writing, the jury was deadlocked on many of those charges.
If you’re a person, a huge business, or anywhere in between, discreet communication is key. Email can be forwarded and searched. Tweets and posts can be searched. Failure to practice discretion can negatively affect an ongoing dispute or a future dispute. It can affect your personal life. Anyone can be a media story for all the wrong reasons.