The nude-photo Twitter scandal of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Junior High) offers enough valuable lessons to fill the pages of all sorts of publications – Men’s Health, Psychology Today, Twitter for Dummies.
But one key lesson from this story – a lesson that can benefit everyone – is the importance of seriously thinking through all potential risks before sending any email, tweet, instant message or other online communication.
At Weiner’s press conference, where he admitted to sending naughty pictures of himself over the web, the Congressman explained he had actually meant to tweet the photo to just one woman – but he accidentally sent it to his entire list of Twitter followers. He also admitted to engaging in naughty online chats with several women over the years – chats I’m guessing he assumed would always remain private.
In previous articles, I’ve argued that email (same goes for Twitter, instant messaging, etc.) is public and permanent. It’s public because as soon as you send it, it becomes someone else’s property, and its new owner can share it with still more new owners. Email is permanent because its recipients own it forever and can pass it on to anyone at any time in the future.
I’ll admit, though, that when I wrote those articles about the potential risks of email, I never imagined something like this. The sad truth, though, is that Congressman Weiner’s story is only one of many high-profile examples of how even smart, successful people can make enormous mistakes — reputation-ruining, career-ending, family-destroying mistakes – by misusing online communication.
Ideally, you’ll burn the Anthony Weiner nude-picture email scandal into your memory, because if anything will force you into the habit of thinking seriously about the potential risks before firing off an email, it’s this story.
But if you don’t want Congressman Weiner or any of his pictures in your long-term memory – and I wouldn’t blame you – have a look at these other email scandals.
Email carelessness cost Governor Mark Sanford his job and good name.
Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina, was ultimately ousted from his position because of an extramarital affair. And the evidence that proved the affair – and made Sanford an international laughing stock – was a series of emails he wrote to his mistress.
A short excerpt from one of these emails: “I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent little kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips….” Let me spare you the rest and just assure you that it goes on and on like that.
Think the governor expected to find this private email to his mistress published in newspapers around the world?
Email carelessness cost Cerner Corporation and its shareholders millions of dollars.
In 2001, Neal Patterson, CEO of the healthcare IT company Cerner Corporation, sent an internal email to his senior staff, berating them for not working hard enough – and threatening to fire them all.
An excerpt: “As managers, you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing or you do not CARE. In either case, you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you.”
The “private” email leaked. It hit the news. Investors got nervous. And the stock dropped nearly 22%.
Email carelessness cost one of the most respected climate research facilities its credibility.
The Climate Research Unit at England’s University of East Anglia is one of the primary research centers from which the United Nations pulls data for its global climate reports.
The head of the CRU, Phil Jones, became the subject of worldwide suspicion and criticism when emails surfaced showing that Jones had manipulated climate data.
One example: “I’ve just completed Mike’s [science journal] Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”
Now that these emails are public, do you think the public will ever again trust Phil Jones’s climate analysis?
If the Anthony Weiner story teaches us anything (other than that men in their 40s should not behave like adolescents), it is that you never know where your digital communications will surface, who will see them, or how they’ll be used.
So when you’re writing any online message – even an informal one to a trusted friend – remember this rule: If you wouldn’t say it (or in Congressman Weiner’s case, show it) to the whole group in a staff meeting, don’t send it.