Crisis Communications Lesson #1: Bytes Can Always Bite You Back

Want to avoid a crisis? Keep your bytes out of the boss’s business.

Several years ago, while preparing to leave the executive branch of the federal government in Washington, DC, I attended an exit tutorial by my agency’s General Counsel detailing what documents must be archived, what could be thrown away, and what just could be ignored. Among those that required archiving were emails. This was not as onerous a chore as it may sound, since every email ever received or sent on our government computers and Blackberries were automatically backed up every night and archived through the government server.

Another federal employee in the room, from another agency anxiously double-checked “but the emails I’ve deleted are gone, right?”

“Wrong,” said the GC. “They are all archived.”

The rest of us laughed, while the questioner squirmed, unpleasantly surprised to learn that even deleted emails were still lurking somewhere on government servers. Apparently, the orientation lecture from five years earlier was a distant memory.

Hillary Clinton seems to have had a better handle on how government servers are like cockroaches, i.e. indestructible, and decided to use a private email account to send and receive both secretary-of-state and mom-and-wife messages between 2009 and 2013.  Sec. Clinton claims that she was able to separate the State Department emails from the personal ones, and, earlier this month, handed over 55,000 work emails to the department.

But whether or not Ms. Clinton used a personal email account to conduct government business to avoid scrutiny is not the point of this blog. (I know, I buried the lede) Nor is it to determine if the fallout from this news will hurt her presidential bid.

The point is that anything we commit to bytes will live forever, from our Facebook selfies and Twitter rants to our Snapchat photos and Etsy purchases. But you already know that – right? You already know that emails can lead to all kinds of PR mischief. You already know that “if you don’t want to see it in a headline you shouldn’t put it in an email.” Right?

Our legal electronic activities at home are our business—but are no less vulnerable to unwanted dissemination. But at work… well, employers have the right to monitor correspondence, and government agencies especially aren’t about to let the Fourth Amendment get in their way of reading what we write. As FindLaw.com notes:

“Emails are … governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Patriot Act. Although the ECPA originally set up protections (such as a warrant requirement) to protect email, those protections have been weakened in many instances by the Patriot Act. Even where the protections remain under the ECPA, emails lose their status as a protected communication in 180 days, which means a warrant is no longer necessary and your emails can be accessed by a simple subpoena.”

So go ahead, email Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright using that new anatomically curious phrase you heard while binge watching House of Cards, or email Edward Snowden with a marriage proposal. Just don’t do it from your work email. Even if it is hdr@clintonemail.com.

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