Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Friends don't let friends get spammed

According to the authors of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How To Do It Better, 100 billion unsolicited commercial e-mail messages are sent everyday and the average North American white collar worker gets 50,000 to 100,000 e-mails per year. It's easy to point the finger at faceless spammers and naive do-gooders who pass on warnings about lurking viruses or poorly-written missives that we must "immediately share with ten friends in order for something good to happen".

But what about people we know? Friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances who share our e-mail addresses without our permission or include us in the To list of their group vacation updates so everyone else can see our personal or professional e-mail. I'm sure many of them don't mean to be rude, perhaps they don't even think about it but the fact is, it's not okay to share someone's e-mail address with another person without their permission, especially if, in doing so, you expose them to unsolicited, unwanted e-mails. Even worse, "friends" who share your e-mail address with people who have something to sell without your permission: "Hi Ann, I thought you'd like to meet my friend Steve. His company makes the most amazing widgets. Steve, feel free to e-mail your catalogue to Ann. "

I found myself in this situation recently. At a networking event, I met someone who expressed interest in partnering with a current client of mine. I took his card and when I returned to the office, I called the client and asked if he would be interested in an e-mail introduction. He said "yes" so I called the gentleman I had met, confirmed his interest and asked if it would be okay to include his contact information in an introductory e-mail. He also said "yes" and so I composed an e-mail to introduce them to each other and they've now set up a meeting. Time consuming? Yes but proper e-mail etiquette.

There are occasions where it's acceptable to share e-mail addresses but only if a relationship - professional or personal - has already been established. For example, I could include the e-mail address of a coworker in a welcome message to a new client. Or, if I am a board member of a professional organization, I wouldn't be surprised to find my e-mail address, along with those of the other board members, in the To line. We have a prior, established relationship with a clear objective and an understood code of professionalism.

However, if one of those board members decided to include the addresses of the others in an e-mail to an outsider about a separate fundraising event, without their prior permission, it would no longer qualify as appropriate netiquette.

Rule of thumb: if you apologize anywhere in your e-mail for the way in which you're handling the communication (e.g. "sorry for the mass e-mail, I don't usually do this"), you might want to rethink it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Five Occasions that Warrant a Thank You Card

Saying thank you is one of the simplest and most effective ways to show your gratitude towards someone who has been kind to you. The act of kindness can be small (holding the door open), large (provided a job reference) or customary (sending flowers to someone recently bereaved) but an expression of thanks, whether verbal, electronic or hand-written should be automatic, perhaps even second nature.

And yet, these two unassuming little words cause so much confusion and angst for some that they avoid them all together. I would hate to think that people refrain from sending notes of appreciation because they are intimidated by the protocol around their use. So, no more excuses. Here is a brief summary of when and how to say thank you.

What occasions warrant a thank you note?
Anytime you feel the urge to thank someone is the right time but the following occasions actually demand it:

- When you have received a gift in your business or professional life
- When you have enjoyed someone's hospitality in their home
- If someone has hosted an event in your honour
- Gratitude for sympathy cards, letters or flowers
- When someone has done you a big favour like helped you move or sent a piece of business your way

Is it ever too late to say thank you?
While there is a cultural expectation that you will respond to someone's kindness in short order, it's easy to get caught up in the craziness of life and push your thank you notes further down your to-do list until the very thought of their tardiness keeps you up at night. While it might be embarrasing for you to thank Aunt Edna for the lovely toaster 12 months after you walked down the aisle, it's still necessary. There is no statute of limitations on thank you cards and believe me, people are waiting for them.

Do I really need to send a hand-written note?
What's wrong with writing out a thank you note? Personally, I find it therapeutic but I enjoy Gene Kelly movies and hard-copy newspapers so perhaps I'm out of touch. Hand-written notes are always appreciated and, in today's society with its profusion of electronic communications, they certainly stand out, but they are not always necessary. Formal occasions, such as weddings require a hand-written sentiment thanking your guest for sharing your special day and specifically mentions the gift and how you are using it. However, if a business acquaintance takes you for lunch, an e-mail later the same day will suffice. What's important is that you recognize and acknowledge that someone has shown consideration towards you.

What should I say?
Some people find it intimidating to write thank you notes but it's really quite simple:
-Keep it warm, sincere, enthusiastic and most importantly, personal. If you are sending multiple cards, each one needs to be different.
-If it's in response to a gift, mention the gift, how much you appreciate it and how you are using it
-Make it more about them (e.g. "you are always so thoughtful) than about you

Do I need to thank each person individually?
To express my condolences, I recently donated to a charity when an acquaintance lost a parent. One week later, I was shocked to find myself on the To list of a group e-mail thanking me and several others who had sent flowers or made donations. There are very, very few occasions in polite society where it's appropriate to say thank you to a group of people and this is definitely not one of them. While I'm pleased that there is an expression of gratitude, the use of a 'group' format suggests the sender doesn't value each individual's contribution enough to personalize it. Group thank-you cards are only appropriate where the entire group is already bound together by geography or circumstance (e.g. a department in your office or an existing online forum). If they were strangers before the event that precipitated their kindness, they need to be treated individually when you express your thanks.

There is much to be said on this topic and I'm only skimmed the surface. I would be interested in your feedback, questions or challenges.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Recession Etiquette - A Call for Class Indeed

It seems we are officially in a recession. After 9 months of dealing with the ups and downs (mostly downs) of a tanking economy, I'm starting to view it as an opportunity for positive change. I know this is a cliche but I've already been through the other four stages of grief - denial (this can't be happening), anger (why me, I've worked so hard), bargaining (don't cancel the project, let's rework it), depression (all is lost, there's no point) and I'm now firmly in acceptance. Rapid, unanticipated change is often a much-needed kick in the butt that forces you to re-examine your priorities, challenge your assumptions and identify those areas where you've become complacent.

Since last September, I have networked like never before. I've been going through my Rolodex looking up old contacts and people I haven't spoken with in years have found me. I have sat through many coffee meetings with recently laid-off acquaintances and I have tried to provide therapy to friends who have found themselves in dire financial straits.

An article in yesterday's Globe & Mail got me thinking about recession etiquette. The author cautioned against offering "cliche comfort" to the economy-afflicted with sayings such as: when one door closes, another one opens or when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Sage wisdom maybe but useless in the face of mounting debt and a lack of job leads. Instead of empty platitudes, Tim Tyrell-Smith, who runs Spinstrategy.com suggests that you ask someone what they need a hand with.

Here are some other recession etiquette faux pas and suggestions I've come across in the last half a year:

Recession, what recession? - A family member recently said this to me when I asked if they'd been affected. She and her spouse are both employed by the government and enjoy relative job security plus union-negotiated benefits. That's fine, but please don't deny that there is a recession going on, especially when talking to an entrepreneur.

Can you find me a job? - I have a lot of contacts in my field and I'm happy to facilitate introductions if I believe they will be valuable for both parties. However, I am busy running my own company and don't have time to follow up extensively.

Would you have time for coffee? - Traditional etiquette dictates that the person who initiates the coffee date is on the hook for the bill. But if someone invites me for coffee and they're unemployed, I feel that I should cover it, or at least suggest we meet at a low-cost venue.

It's so unfair - Before you start your 'why me' rant, get some perspective and think about who you're talking to. If your big complaint is that your organization is trying to reduce your annual sick days from 20 to 15 and you're chatting to a person who doesn't even have a job, keep it to yourself. It's all relative.

We're so lucky we...(enter brilliant decision here) before things got bad - It's great that you bought your home when the market was low, locked in your mortgage at 2 %, eschewed Prada bags for high-yield savings and live near your parents so you have free childcare. Please refrain from regaling the rest of us with your smart (or plain lucky) decisions.

Say thank you - I've recently met with many out-of-work PR professionals, some of whom I know personally and some who are friends of friends. I've done my best to provide advice and introduce them to others who might aid their job search. Only half have followed up with a thank you note. Handwritten cards are wonderful but an e-mail is the bare minimum.

It's just lunch - Remember the good old days when the cheque would come and people would fight over who would pick up the tab ("Let me get it. I insist", "No, it's my turn")? As with coffee, if you invite someone to lunch, especially if the objective is to get free advice or connections, you should pick up the tab. So, just pick somewhere you can afford. In this era of conspicuous consumption, no one will be offended if you suggest the corner diner. And, don't forget to tip the wait staff. Avoiding high-end restaurants is acceptable. Stiffing the waitress is not.

One parting thought. Be as nice an d as helpful as you possibly can. Do it because it's the right thing to do but also because the world is small. You never know when the tables will be turned.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Technology Etiquette - Confusion Reigns

Several months ago I attended a seminar with a junior colleague of mine. There were about 40 people in attendance, including some of our firm's clients. About five minutes into the talk, my colleague, who was sitting a few seats away from me, got out his handheld device and tapped the keys furiously for about two minutes, then put it down. A moment later, he did the same thing and continued thus for the duration of the seminar.

Needless to say, I was mortified. I was not the only one who noticed him doing this and in fact, several of our clients were glaring at him openly. I couldn't believe he was text-messaging a friend during a seminar, and one organized by clients no less. As we left, I mentioned that there is an expectation that we put our cell phones and Blackberries away while someone is talking and it's inappropriate to check e-mails or send text messages during a presentation. He looked at me incredulously and, with more than a hit of condescension, said: "I wasn't texting. I was taking notes, the modern way". Boy, did I feel ancient.

Today, my business partner Martin Waxman, who is attending a PR conference in Vancouver, said he was one of few people live-tweeting the morning session. I suggested that maybe his fellow attendees didn't want to give the impression that they weren't paying attention.

Each of these anecdotes raise an important question about technology etiquette. While it has long been accepted that a speaker, any speaker, deserves the courtesy of your full attention, where does tweeting come into the mix? And if you prefer to tap out your conference notes rather than use a pen and paper, how do you let people know that's what you are doing?

In matters of etiquette, the golden rule is to move through life's situations with a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. What's important in a meeting or conference situation then, is to gauge the environment as you walk in. If you're in a small meeting of senior colleagues and clients, all of whom have turned off their cell phones, then you will most likely offend by choosing to use yours in front of them. If, however, you're at a panel discussion on how to tweet with style, then chances are, you will be one of many who tweet while they listen. The point is to learn to "read" each situation and act accordingly. Personally, I prefer to focus on what people are saying, digest it and share later, but that's just me.
If you're hosting a meeting or presenting a seminar, do everyone a favour and explain the code of conduct at the beginning. If you prefer not to be interupted by ringing cell phones and beeping handhelds, politely request that everyone turn their cell phones off at the beginning. They may not heed your request, but at least it will be out there. Build e-mail and voicemail breaks into the schedule and let people know when they are. If you're comfortable with guests tweeting your words of wisdom, then give them permission at the start. By You'll put everyone at ease and remove confusion and judgement.

One more thing. If you are one of those who takes electronic notes or tweets during conferences, keep it to that please. Don't use it as an excuse to multi-task by responding to e-mails. That's just rude!