In September 2007, I received — as part of that never-ending, never-even-ebbing stream of emails from public-relations people that all journalists used to get — a message from one of the better known PR women in the San Francisco Bay Area.
At the time, I tried to reply to all emails for the simple reason that I was raised to be polite. If somebody sends you a message, it behooves you to answer.
That day’s email chain put an end to that gentilesse. I will reproduce it below, with all the names XXX-ed out to protect the individual.
It started on September 11, 2007. This PR woman emailed me (Subject: “Quick Q”) to ask whether I covered a certain industry segment in which she had a client she was hoping to introduce me to.
On September 12 at 10:58 PDT I replied:
Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second
At 11:02 PDT — in other words, four minutes later — her reply showed up in my inbox, except that it was addressed to her client. She must have accidentally hit Reply instead of Forward.
In any case, I now saw my email (the one she thought she was forwarding), which she had edited:
[Client’s first name],
With your permission, I am going to set up a lunch with you and Andreas – in early October.
From: Andreas Kluth [mailto:andreaskluth @ economist.com]
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 10:58 AM
Subject: Re: Quick Q
Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second. Let’s plan a lunch in October?
This was strange, and I thought it appropriate to point it out. So I sent one more email to her:
Er, XXX, there is something highly bizarre going on. Today I replied to your email with the first and second sentence in the email trail that allegedly comes from me below. I did not write the third sentence and i don’t sign with AK.
I don’t recall asking for a lunch in October
And, not entirely to my surprise, I never got another peep from this lady (who had been firing off emails at a rapid clip).
What was I to make of this?
On one hand, I like to consider myself, whenever possible, a Cavalier, not a Roundhead. Basically, that means smirking at life, not frowning.
On the other hand, I was somewhat puzzled and miffed.
If the exchange had not been so utterly trivial and boring, one might have called this fraud. But it was simply too petty. Did this woman really think that her client would be impressed if he saw an email from me to her with (as opposed to without) my initials? Did she really think that she could somehow insinuate me into a lunch in October that I had never suggested?
So I took a look at my inbox as it was at that time. In 2007, I received more than 500 emails a day — 90% from PR people — on a weekday. This robbed me of a lot of time and thus made me less productive. PR people were interfering with my work and life.
Worse: they were also calling. My phone (at the time I had an actual — as opposed to virtual — phone) was constantly ringing, and it was usually an intern at a PR company, announcing that she was updating their database and asking me whether I was so-and-so at this-and-this address and so forth.
I realized, of course, that my habit of replying was part of the problem: Whenever I answered an email or phone call, I confirmed my presence to them, and they would put me on their automatic distribution lists of press releases. (These emails then as now did not necessarily have a one-click unsubscribe button).
Seriously: When was the last time anybody read a press release?
So I decided to interrupt the vicious cycle.
Genuine (meaning bespoke) emails and emails from people I personally knew, I still answered. The rest I ignored.
That did not restore my inbox to health, but it arrested its deterioration.
Then, a month later, Chris Anderson wrote a blog post that got quite a lot of attention. (Chris had been a colleague at The Economist — in fact, I replaced him as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000 — but by this time he was editor-in-chief of Wired)
Chris took a two-pronged approach:
- He whacked any unsolicited and inappropriate email into his Spam filter, and
- he published a blacklist of prime offenders.
I decided that the blacklisting was too harsh — the modern equivalent of a pillory — but that the spam-filtering was a great idea.
So I have been doing the same: If I get an automatically distributed press release, or even just a really inappropriate email, it goes straight into our corporate Postini. (And Postini, of course, “learns” this way which emails to consider spam, so that my click indirectly helps other journalists.)
Over time, this solved the problem. My inbox now often looks like this:
And I have become productive again.
Not only that, but I have learned to love email again! It has actually become useful to me.
Those people, including PR people, who ought to be able to reach me can now do so more easily than ever. The others no longer bother me as much.
And etiquette is making a comeback. Every new technology causes a change in social protocols. Our grandparents used to have to learn when and how to call people — and simultaneously how to be called — without being rude. Now PR people and the rest of us are figuring out how to be civil in the Internet era.