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April 03, 2007

Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool . . .

by Josh Bernoff

The quote is remarkably hard to track down (even Yahoo answers and WikiQuote don't have a definitive answer) but best I can tell it's Mark Twain who said:

Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Today's topic is how automated tools and email in the hands of the lazy can make you look like a fool. And as you well know, with today's connected world, the slightest foolishness (say, a snoring cable installer) can make you famous for being clueless.

I've deleted the names in most of these examples, not because the perpetrators deserve protection, but because there are so many people making these mistakes, it's not fair to single out individuals.

As an analyst I get a lot of PR-type email. 90% of it is harmless -- of no interest to me or, sometimes I think, anyone, so I just delete it. Someone is spending a lot of PR money telling me that their CEO is talking at a conference, or that they finally got a customer. I'm sorry you spend the time to tell me what is not news, but that's okay.

5% is actually interesting to me and I ask for a followup or mark it in some way. My 5% is not the same as your 5%, but email is free, so why not send it to all of us. Figuring out which stuff I should get would take a lot more time than just sending me anything. Hey, I'm sure your time is much more important than mine. In 12 years as an analyst I've gotten on a lot of mailing lists.

The other 5% is the stuff that is actively harmful to PR clients' reputations. There are the sloppy mistakes, like the press releases with the MS Word edit markups still in there (why did they cross out that sentence about having GM as a client? Hmm. Must be a secret). But by far the most interesting are the people who, in an attempt to say "Good morning Josh" and get me to look say something else instead.

For example, I received a missive about a music festival (who put me on that list?) that began this way:

From: [Name deleted to protect the guilty]
Sent: Monday, April 02, 2007 3:32 PM
To: Bernoff, Josh

Subject: Interview Inquiry- [Deleted] Music & Arts Festival

Hey 617 613 57nn

I wanted to let you know about the [Deleted] Apple Music & Arts Festival . . .

Let's do the math. Let's assume that putting my name in the body of the email makes me 5% more likely to read it. So, is it worth that 5% boost when (based on the releases that land in my inbox) there is also a 5% chance you'll make an error and say "Hey 617 617 57nn" and prove yourself to be too lazy to figure out how your own mass email program works? This stands out way more than my name. And you have just "removed all doubt." (The real one had my actual phone number in it.)

Then there was this:

From: [Name deleted]
Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2007 12:00 PM
Subject: Dinner Invite

Just in case you were planning on attending the CCBN Cable Show in Beijing at the end of this month, I wanted to extend an invitation to you to join [deleted] at a Dinner Banquet on Saturday evening, March 31st, at the . . .

Warm regards, [name deleted]

This sounds nice enough, but notice there is no "To:" line. It was sent to a blind mailing list. I and an unspecified random collection of people must be pretty important to get this dinner invitation, but apparently not important enough to get mailed by name. But I know they think I'm important anyway, because of the "Warm Regards" at the end. By the way, this vendor makes a piece of communications equipment that I use in my house that needed to be rebooted yesterday, maybe they knew this was coming . . .

If you're still reading, good, because I saved the best one for last.

Ces_sample_graphic The Consumer Electronics Association sent me a mailing a few weeks ago (they mail all of us who attend their conferences with all manner of stuff, it seems like weekly). They were testing a marketing program for their international conference (CES) next year. Sure, 140,000 people go to CES every year so I don't know why they need to work so hard to market it, but they deserve credit for checking in with us. So I took a little Web survey. One of the choices we were being asked to evaluate in their survey was the graphic shown here.

Charitably, this graphic is a reminder that when you go to CES, the taxi lines are 45 minutes long. Is this really the image they want to reinforce? It's so bad that for the last two years I rented a bicycle.

Uncharitably, look at that graphic again. Doesn't it create an image in your mind that's more closely associated with crowds of World War II era Germans than consumer electronics? Nah, it can't be, after all, she's smiling . . .

Now the Consumer Electronics Association will tell you that this was just a test, and the kind of connotations I'm talking about would never have made it into their official marketing campaign. But they just emailed it to thousands and thousands of people in their survey. How much more public could it be than that?

Everything you do is public. Everything. Every support rep answering a phone call. Every email, mass or individual. Every customer contact. So check it first. Better to keep your mouth shut and remain a fool . . .

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A fool's fool

I think your argument proves the opposite of your conclusion.

Since the world is so public trying to hide foolishness is unlikely to work - as it will come out when you least expect embarrassing you the most.

Part of the challenge organizations have to face with increasing transparency is how to raise the standards across the board, assuming that everything gets public so quick. This is the opposite of trying to keep your mouth shut.

Case in point:

At AstraZeneca a Sales Director referred to doctors' offices as "buckets of money" in an internal sales newsletter. The quote got leaked, picked up by blogs and he was fired in a few short days.

Sure the company took quick action to distance from a very rotten perception and look responsible. But the real question is how to train everyone to be an effective communicator instead of keeping mum.

In transparent world no fool is safe.


it's an old African proverb.


it's an old African proverb.


it's an old African proverb.


it's an old African proverb.

Rebekah Donaldson

This post is completely inspiring. It's one of the best blog posts I've read to date. Wow.

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