Proper protocol sends the best message
- By Steve Graves
- May 12, 1997
It has changed the way we work and done more than any other technology to rid the
office of paper.
E-mail is faster than conventional postal delivery and almost as dependable. Neither
rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night will stop e-mail from arriving shortly after
you hit the Send button. That is, unless your e-mail server, local network or provider's
connection is down.
A survey conducted by the General Services Administration's Electronic Messaging
Program Management Office (E-Mail PMO) found that most federal users consider e-mail more
effective than faxing, voice mail, telephone, Web exchanges, personal meetings, regular
mail and videoconferencing. [GCN, Jan. 27, Page 1].
In fact, e-mail may already be indispensable to smooth operations in the government.
According to the study, all large federal organizations and more than 80 percent of small
agencies rated e-mail as important to daily operations.
It stands to reason that if agencies can use e-mail more effectively, they'll perform
more efficiently. Try these tips to leverage your e-mail investment:
Use e-mail whenever practical. Several studies have fixed the total cost of
sending a typical business letter at about $30. Faxes can be just as expensive. Because
most of the cost of conventional mail is in labor, it's misleading to say that e-mail
costs only pennies. But e-mail can reduce postage and paper costs dramatically-not to
mention the time it takes to print a letter, get the heading and signature just right,
address an envelope and find a stamp.
Don't use e-mail for emotionally hot issues. Communications trainers often
assert that most of the meaning in conversations is conveyed by body language. Verbal
communication gives the benefit of immediate feedback. You understand how your message is
perceived by watching your listener's facial expressions.
E-mail lacks the immediate feedback and verbal nuances inherent to the spoken word. If
you're upset, walk over and talk to the person face-to-face or pick up the telephone.
E-mail is a dangerous tool in supervisor-subordinate conflicts.
Avoid the automobile cocoon syndrome, which some researchers say has contributed
to the increase in aggressive driving. Some people feel anonymous and remote when they get
behind the wheel. Likewise, some e-mail users make remarks in writing that they would
never say in person.
If you aren't willing to make a statement in public, don't make it in e-mail.
Unencrypted e-mail messages are about as private as if they were posted in the elevators.
Indeed, don't write anything in e-mail that you wouldn't want to see in tomorrow's
headlines. Lt. Col. Oliver North might have escaped trouble if he had known that hitting
the Del key didn't erase his electronic messages.
Sexist or racist language that would not be tolerated in casual conversation is no less
offensive or illegal when communicated in e-mail messages. Think before passing along an
off-color joke. It might someday be construed as contributing to a hostile environment,
and the evidence will survive on your organization's backup drives.
Be careful with the Send button. A military warrant officer recently told me
that he was finishing a message involving sensitive and private materials when, without
thinking, he hit the "bang" button to send the message to everyone on the
general circulation list. That included every military and civilian employee assigned to
his duty station as well as headquarters personnel.
Fortunately for the warrant officer's career, the system administrator happened to be
on duty and agreed to bring down the system within a minute, preventing propagation of the
message to most destinations.
The only way the administrator could tell who did and didn't receive it was to bring up
the stations one at a time, check for the message and delete it.
He also had to track down people outside the office who had received the message by
mistake and ask them to delete it.
As a result of one thoughtless keystroke, the entire network was down until late
evening, and a career officer came close to needing a new job. The consequences might have
been more serious if other mail hadn't been queued up ahead of his message or if the
system administrator had been less accommodating.
Resolve to take one last glance at the address block in your e-mail client before
hitting the Send button, especially if it's a sensitive but unclassified message.
On the other hand, don't overuse encryption. Of course, you should encrypt
classified or sensitive messages when appropriate. But encrypting and decrypting messages
is time-consuming. Using your Fortezza PC Card to encrypt your choice of pizza toppings
Manage your e-mail; don't let it manage you. You probably know someone who, when
occupied, is disciplined enough to let the phone just ring. But most of us are conditioned
like Pavlov's dog to pick up the handset as soon as the bell sounds. Similarly, some
people feel a compulsion to open every message as soon as it reaches the desktop. Schedule
your e-mail as you would any task. Set aside time to answer it once or twice a day. Apply
the paper management principle: Act on it, file it or trash it.
Set up subject and action folders for your e-mail. Subject folders might concern
projects, events, things or people. Action folders set priorities. For example: A items
are most important and require attention today. B items are important but not pressing.
And C items are optional or pending. Make it a priority to design a message folder system
that reflects the way you work.
Speaking of priorities, most e-mail clients such as Eudora Mail Pro from Qualcomm Inc.
of San Diego, Calif., and Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook give you ways to mark a priority on
messages you send.
As a matter of netiquette, be careful not to over-prioritize your messages to the
extent that low-priority items never get answered. You risk offending your recipients or
having them ignore you in an emergency. Likewise, don't let other people set your
priorities. Don't hesitate to send someone else's high-priority message straight into the
And speaking of trash bins, don't open unnecessary e-mail. Scan subject lines
and sender information. If the mail is more appropriate for a colleague, forward the
message. If it's junk mail or about a topic that's not of interest, dump it.
The Del key is an e-mail user's best friend.
Learn to establish filters. Most e-mail programs such as Novell Inc.'s GroupWise
have filters that can file, forward and delete e-mail automatically. Filters look for key
words in the message header or body. You can configure the filter to handle incoming
messages the same way you would. For example, I use Eudora Mail Pro filters to fight spam
mail by trashing messages that use the $ character or uses the word "free" in
the subject line. My program files press releases directly in a press release folder, and
mail from Mom goes into a personal folder.
Eudora Mail Pro also lets you assign unique sound files to filters. By associating
different sounds with key words and priorities, you'll know the priority, subject and
source of incoming e-mail by the tone generated by the filter as it handles incoming mail.
This trick requires a sound card on your PC and an e-mail client that supports filter and
Use e-mail for electronic publishing and distribution. The Web gets all the
glory, but e-mail is sometimes the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to publish
electronically. You can use list servers to distribute electronic newsletters, keep team
members informed of project problems and progress, serve constituents with news and
fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.
You can even use simple e-mail clients combined with address books to publish
newsletters or to distribute agency bulletins. If you want something a little fancier than
a simple text message, save your publication as a file compatible with your readers' word
processors or as a Portable Document File viewable with a free Adobe Acrobat reader from
Adobe Systems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. Just make sure that your readers have the
software, the tools and the technical expertise necessary to read the attached documents.
Beware of strange attachments. One of the persistent myths on the Internet is
that someone can pass a virus to your computer by embedding one in an e-mail message. Not
true. But e-mail messages with attached programs can carry and transmit viruses. Viruses
are simply small programs. Some are benign and some are virulent. But viruses remain
dormant until awakened, and the only way to wake them is by running the program.
So opening an e-mail message can't activate a virus. Opening the executable attachment
If you receive an attachment from someone you don't know and the attachment file name
ends with an .exe, .bat or .com extension, don't open it until you can vouch for the
origin of the message.
Even if you know the person or organization named in the From header, use discretion if
anything seems out of ordinary. Address headers can and have been spoofed. Spoofed
messages are those sent with false header information designed to disguise the sender.
Use e-mail to handle polls. You can easily use e-mail to conduct informal polls
and inexpensive surveys.
If you direct respondents to place standardized replies in the subject line, you can
use filters to file the responses directly to designated folders. You don't even need to
tally the messages because most e-mail clients will give you the message count in the
Train your people. Many e-mail programs contain advanced features that can help
your employees get more work done. Although most employees probably know how to send and
reply to e-mail, many might not know about other features.
How skilled are your employees? Create an electronic survey with your favorite e-mail
client. Ask your staff the following questions: Do you know how to attach a
word-processing file to a message? Do you know how to handle incoming attachments? Do you
know how to use the address list? Do you know how to forward messages? Do you know what
the CC and BC fields are for and how to use them? Do you know what to do if you receive
mail with an unauthorized attachment from an unknown source?
If you know your people need training but your agency lacks the funds, why not enlist
office gurus to train them over a brown bag lunch?
Here's a final tip:
Solicit ideas by e-mail. Send your favorite e-mail tips to email@example.com. We'll share them with readers in
a future story.