The Enemy is Listening: Minimizing the PR Fallout of Poor Email Security

Back in the second world war German radio transmitters sometimes had a plaque saying "Feind hört mit!", or "The enemy is listening!", a constant reminder that radio traffic is easy to intercept.

Today you might write the same message on your email client, because email messages are notoriously insecure, often ending up in the hands of people who should not have them. Sometimes they are simply copied to a memory stick and removed from the building by an insider. Other times they are extracted remotely by hackers. Less commonly they are obtained from a lost device and occasionally by intercepting wifi traffic. Whatever method is used the result is usually the same: embarrassment.

There might be people who steal emails simply to read them, but the greatest hazard for most organizations is that the contents are posted on public websites and discussed in media. High-profile hacks have revealed internal emails of Sony Pictures, the US Government and many others. At the very least these leaks are a PR disaster, but sometimes they can cause actual financial damage.

Guarding against email leaks is extremely difficult. Good information security can protect against external attacks, procedures can minimize internal leaks and encryption can protect content in many cases. But any message that can be read can be leaked. The best way to minimize the risk of embarrassment is therefore to avoid writing embarrassing details in emails. Even if the facts of some business you intended to be confidential are leaked, the cost to your organization is much greater if the language is also disrespectful, flippant or offensive. Many of the emails from the Sony leak were made much worse by the tone and choice of words.

That's why you might want to add a "Fiend hört mit!" sticker on your laptop or your smartphone, and every time you write an email ask yourself how it will look in the New York Times and on Twitter when it leaks. Sometimes just a little tweak to the wording can make a major PR catastrophe into a minor embarrassment. Never write an angry email (I wrote about this two years ago in Three reasons for not writing angry emails), never write more than you have to and stick to the essential facts. And if your business is especially sensitive turn instead to encrypted messaging or face to face meetings.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

You can contact Andrew Hennigan to discuss lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on email and other topics through email at and by phone on 0046 730 894 475.


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