When private communications go viral – it doesn’t matter who you are

The issue of private correspondence ‘going viral’ is not a regular occurrence for the legal profession (although Roll on Friday would like you to think it is!). Lawyers are notoriously cagey when it comes to language, knowing full well the consequences of using words carelessly. This caution is even more exercised when it comes to putting something down in writing, particularly in an email, to the extent that these days part of the more unofficial side of legal training includes being instructed to think about ‘how it would look being read out in court’ before pressing send.

Of course in the wider world, particularly for those who have not had access to reams of case law that show exactly what can happen when words are used carelessly, this is not the case. We have seen numerous examples of how committing thoughts, feelings or criticisms to email has resulted in someone ending up in a pretty compromising public position when that email is leaked to the press or suddenly catches the imagination of the social media loving public and streaks across the world wide web (demonstrating just how world wide it really is…). This type of gleeful Chinese whispers takes no notice of status or position either – in fact the more powerful or staid the victim the more delight people take in spreading the message.

Examples of the way a ‘viral threat’ can impact on a real life events include Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who has faced numerous issues from his emails being made public, the most recent being an order by Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, that Clegg hand over a batch of crucial emails after a charity linked to his wife received a £12 million payment that leaked emails showed was apparently lobbied for by a member of Clegg’s team. But it’s not just politicians who forget how private email is not. There was the case of Claire Swire who was emailing someone she trusted – her boyfriend – with explicit snippets about their sex life, only to find it spread all over the internet. I remember that one as the first of its kind – I was sat at my desk back in 2000 when that email dropped in my inbox and my colleague opposite shrieked because her flatmate was in fact the same Clare Swire in question. Similarly, Joseph Dobbie who wrote a rather over the top email to a woman he had recently met, describing her smile as “the freshest of my special memories” (among other things), which was forwarded and forwarded until virtually everyone in the country had seen it.

Given these very public examples of how risky it can be to commit anything to email that you might not be willing to shout out in public it’s odd then that people still go ahead and do it. And perhaps odder still that someone who is about to start legal training would do so. However, that’s what has happened as the most recent viral to do the rounds comes from an American law student who had worked for three years at Burger King, and who proceeded to ‘burn bridges’ with his or her employer via email after accepting a place at law school. The rather ‘expressive’ email describes how the soon-to-be law student hated working at Burger King, because of the work, the company and ‘fellow employees that cannot speak the language.’ The mildly racist and rather aggressive missive was posted by one of the people on the receiving end of it to the website Passive Aggressive and has since done the rounds of the internet reaching all sorts of foreign shores.

The email is yet another timely reminder that nothing is personal in the new electronic age that we live in. No matter how private the email you think you might be sending, thanks to the ‘forward’ button, there’s really no such thing anymore.

To ensure your staff are all ‘on message’ get in touch for information about the workshops we run.

Share this post