Re­minder No. 3,456,789 about the per­ils of email

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­

Ex­perts on lead­er­ship com­mu­ni­ca­tions call it the New York Times rule or the “front page test.” It’s one of the most com­mon apho­risms of ad­vis­ers and at­tor­neys who coun­sel ex­ec­u­tives on their busi­ness ethics, le­gal strate­gies and cri­sis man­age­ment: Don’t put any­thing in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the cover of the New York Times or another ma­jor news­pa­per.

Se­cu­ri­ties lawyers use it to re­mind cor­po­rate directors to think about what is writ­ten down in board min­utes. Law pro­fes­sors use it to re­mind peo­ple it has the power of the writ­ten word if the in­for­mal­ity of ver­bal speech. Con­sul­tants traf­fic in it of­ten. War­ren Buf­fett has long used it as a rep­u­ta­tion guide for his man­agers, at least since he be­came chair­man of Salomon Broth­ers amid a bond-trad­ing scan­dal in the early 1990s.

And yet, le­gally ques­tion­able or merely em­bar­rass­ing ex­am­ples bub­ble up again and again, from Hol­ly­wood (con­sider the racially in­sen­si­tive jokes made by Sony ex­ec­u­tives) to Wall Street (re­call those dam­ag­ing emails from the Great Re­ces­sion). Now, Don­ald Trump Jr., the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and the pres­i­dent’s el­dest son, has re­leased a stun­ning ex­am­ple: An email ex­change in which he is of­fered the chance to meet with some­one promis­ing in­for­ma­tion that was “part of Rus­sia and its gov­ern­ment’s sup­port for Mr. Trump” and replied that “if it’s what you say I love it es­pe­cially later in the sum­mer.”

The New York Times re­ported that af­ter Trump Jr. was told the Times was about to pub­lish the con­tent of the emails, he shared im­ages of the emails him­self via Twit­ter on Tues­day. That fol­lowed re­ports from the Times in re­cent days that the meet­ing had taken place. In The Wash­ing­ton Post’s cov­er­age of the emails, it called the ex­change “the most con­crete pub­lic ev­i­dence to date sug­gest­ing that top Trump cam­paign aides were eager for Rus­sia’s as­sis­tance in the cam­paign.”

On Mon­day, Trump Jr. sent a tweet sug­gest­ing he was hardly alone in tak­ing meetings on po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion re­search, and he tweeted on Tues­day that “Me­dia & Dems are ex­tremely in­vested in the Rus­sia story. If this non­sense meet­ing is all they have af­ter a yr, I un­der­stand the des­per­a­tion!” In a state­ment he re­leased with the ex­change, Trump Jr. said he was do­ing so to be “to­tally trans­par­ent.”

What­ever the ul­ti­mate con­clu­sion from these emails may be — whether they crossed the line on col­lu­sion or are an overblown story about a rookie mis­take, as some have sug­gested — they are a blar­ing re­minder of the high-risk per­ils of putting sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion in email form. Not only do they spell out an ex­ec­u­tive’s ex­act words, but they put a time stamp on how quickly one re­sponds. (The Times noted he re­sponded “within min­utes.”)

That may be one rea­son why on Wall Street, some high-rank­ing ex­ec­u­tives still don’t use email. Trump him­self has said: “I’m not an email per­son my­self. I don’t be­lieve in it.” But he has also said that he loves them be­cause you “can’t erase emails.”

But for most of us, it’s a way of life, a part of the work­day that is con­stantly there, an ever-present risk to or­ga­ni­za­tions, rep­u­ta­tions and ca­reers. And it’s the rea­son the sim­ple, com­mon-sense “test” or “rule” has be­come such a con­stant re­frain from busi­ness ad­vis­ers for ev­ery­thing from de­ci­sion­mak­ing to cor­po­rate gov­er­nance to com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy. It gives ex­ec­u­tives work­ing in the non­stop whirl of a big deal or a crit­i­cal de­ci­sion — or, ahem, a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — a quick way to pause, ask a ba­sic ques­tion and, one hopes, make a wise choice.


Don­ald Trump Jr. failed a most ba­sic rule of busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tions: Don’t put any­thing in email that you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

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